Maneater, Justin Lee, Saban Films
Credit: Saban Films
Before We Vanish by Steven Warner Film

Maneater — Justin Lee

August 31, 2022

Maneater is confounding and viscerally dull take on the shark attack subgenre.

The glut of shark-themed films airing on the SyFy Channel on a weekly basis has taken a bit of air out of the once-thrilling subgenre as a whole. Gone are the days of the likes of Jaws, where skilled craftsmen were able to create unrelenting tension simply through a bit of sturdy camerawork that obscured more than it showed. Sure, we get a few half-decent throwbacks every now and then — Open Water and The Shallows stand out — but even recent blockbuster The Meg took a page out of the basic cable handbook and planted tongue firmly in cheek, although perhaps not to the degree that allowed the creation of honest-to-God features like Sharknado, Ghost Shark, and Six-Headed Shark Attack, where slapdash filmmaking and godawful CGI prove the ultimate uniting force.

All of which is to say that it is rather refreshing that something like the new shark attack feature Maneater takes its proceedings so seriously, nary a moment of levity to be found in its brief 86-minute runtime. That this also proves its biggest detriment is as ironic as it is obvious, with writer-director Justin Lee lacking the skills and the wherewithal to create anything remotely thrilling or entertaining. In fact, Lee has an incredible six films under his belt within the course of two years, a detail that should clue viewers in that this is not an artist concerned with details, but rather the ability to simply get a project in on time and on a tight budget. It would be nice to report that Lee at least knows where to point a camera and keep it in focus, but there are times where simple static shots of characters sitting on the beach are blurred for no discernible reason. Then there is the matter of how this might be one of the first movies in history to completely forget to include any reverse shots, as if Lee doesn’t understand screen geography or the materials needed to cut together scenes that actually make visual sense. And the shark attack scenes themselves happen so quickly that it makes it virtually impossible to create any sort of sustained tension, as if Lee included them only out of some sort of obligation, even though he was the one who wrote the damn screenplay about a killer shark.

The plot, what little of one exists, concerns a group of friends who travel to Hawaii in an effort to cheer up their recently dumped friend, Jessie (Nicky Whelan), whose vacation coincides with a series of shark attacks that has left dead the daughter of a local fisherman, Harlan (Trace Adkins). Realizing that the authorities will do little to stop the slaughter, Harlan sets out on his own to kill the massive Great White, which has somehow made it to warm waters because, as a local college professor (Jeff Fahey) explains, “There’s so much about Great Whites we don’t know.” Meanwhile, Jessie and her friends get stranded on a remote island after their boat is attacked, and they stupidly keep finding ways to get into the water so that a giant gray CGI blob can chomp on them. Most of the shark action takes place underwater, which allows Lee to somewhat obscure the truly awful special effects: people are bitten in the murky water, a red filter is applied, and we quickly move on. There’s also an actual, man-made shark model used for precisely two shots, and while practical effects are usually to be applauded — the gruesome results of a particularly nasty attack are indeed the only highlight to be found here — it’s used for a couple of meaningless close-ups that add literally nothing to the proceedings, and one is left to ponder why the contraption was used in the first place.

The group of actors brought in to portray the central friend group — including former heartthrob Shane West, of all people — are uniformly bad, with Whelan delivering a performance of such stunning awfulness that it leads one to question if she was narcotized for the entirety of the shoot, her line readings barely registering above a whisper, and seeming as if she was reading them off cue cards for the first time that day. And these actors, all of whom are approaching middle age, are supposed to be playing recent college graduates, which is just one of a hundred inconsistencies, including the fact that key cast members are just outright missing for whole scenes. Adkins — the De Niro to Lee’s Scorsese, having appeared in a handful of his features — gets to drive a boat around and let his flowing locks blow in the breeze, so clearly he gives the most nuanced performance of the film, although the fact that the movie ends with him giving a variation on the famous “We’re going to need a bigger boat” Jaws quote makes him just as culpable as his co-stars, as does giving him a speech where he claims that good company and good food are more effective than therapy when dealing with death of loved ones. It would be easy to label such hectoring as offensive, but that would require the viewer to be stimulated by anything going on in Maneater. Watch out, boy, she’ll put you to sleep.

Published as part of Before We Vanish — August 2022.