The Sharksploitation genre erupted after the release of Jaws in the summer of 1975. After its success, Hollywood would soon churn out seemingly dozens of sequels, rip-offs, and even an ill-fortuned reference to Happy Days (“jumping the shark”), all seeking to replicate the fear instilled by Spielberg’s ocean terror. But how does our collective pop culture go from Jaws, which is grounded in reality, to the world of Sharknado? Writer-director Stephen Scarlata seeks to answer this in Sharksploitation.
The documentary takes the shark genre back further than anyone would think possible. Scarlata is thorough in his investigation of the audience’s fascination with the ocean’s most infamous predator. The film even dives into island cultures worshiping sharks thousands of years ago and horror stories of sharks during the Age of Exploration. But at its core, this is shark mania in cinema. The filmmaker leaves nothing out, hitting every shark-based terror from Jaws and its sequels to the insanity of Ouji Shark, Sharkula, and the Sharknado franchise.
Between the pantheon of experts discussing shark exploitation favorites, Scarlata weaves a narrative about the fictionalization of sharks and the dangers of a violent or “rogue” shark. It’s a tricky balance for the film to strike. One scene could discuss real-world misconceptions about shark attacks, and the next highlights the best kills from Deep Blue Sea. Yet, Sharksploitation successfully balances shark conservation and great white carnage through most of the film.
“…takes the shark genre back further than anyone would think possible.”
The most impressive element is the depth gone into when discussing the genre and many subgenres within sharksploitation. As I said, the director is thorough. The archive footage is excellent, using the most iconic shots and the most intense scenes while steering into the campy insanity of Atomic Shark, Ghost Shark, and Sharktopus. Beyond the archival footage, listening to Roger Corman, Joe Dante, and Anthony C. Ferrante nerd out about their favorite shark films is delightful. Scarlata covers a ton of ground between the talking heads and the well-structured narrative. However, what shines above any technical achievement is everyone involved’s sheer passion for sharks.
Fans of the sharksploitation genre and the legions of subgenres will love this documentary. It features plenty of discussion over all the great and not-so-great shark films since the adventure serials of the 1930s. But Sharksploitation is more than a highlight reel of over-the-top shark moments. The film engages with the audience and adds to the discourse about sharks in nature and film history. Some of the best moments are Marine Biologists discussing shark movie tropes contrasted with experts advocating shark conservation. It’s a role reversal that fits perfectly within the documentary’s core themes.
Sharksploitation runs a bit long and misses the balance of science vs. pop culture towards the climax. Still, the film provides tons of perspective on the issues facing sharks in the 21st century and will give even the biggest shark fans plenty of new movies for their watchlists. Again, Scarlata is thorough in his research, and that passion shines through everyone he talks to.
"…successfully balances shark conservation and great white carnage..."