Shark Swarm – “Fear travels in packs…”

Welcome, everyone! Welcome to Shark Week, possibly the best week of the year (not really; but it’s still a lot of fun), that magical week when Discovery Channel devotes the shark’s share of their programming to, well, sharks. What does that mean for us here at Jumping Sharks? Why, it means a whole week of shark-themed movies, of course! I have to say, Jaws may have done it best, but shark movies almost never disappoint, and this one definitely delivered exactly what it promised (namely, a swarm of sharks killing everyone in sight). So let’s dive in!

Shark Swarm details the travails of the Wilder family as they struggle to not only save their town from a real estate developer, but also from the swarms of killer sharks unleashed on the coast by a chemical spill (believe me when I tell you this will be discussed below). Hamilton Lux (Armand Assante, American Gangster; Judge Dredd) is buying up all the property in and around Full Moon Bay, a small fishing village in an undisclosed part of northern California. Most everyone sells to him, except for Daniel Wilder (John Schneider, Smallville; The Dukes of Hazzard) and his wife Brook Wilder (Daryl Hannah, Kill Bill: Vols. 1 and 2; Grumpy Old Men), who co-own a fishing company with his brother Phillip Wilder (Roark Critchlow, Earth’s Final Hours; Mr. Deeds), a professor at the nearby North Pacific University. While out fishing one day, Daniel and his hired hand find a number of fish clogged with some sort of chemical, as well as a whale torn to bits by sharks. On their way back with their finds, they run across a fellow fisherman’s apparently abandoned boat, soon realizing that it was attacked by something. Long story short, Daniel and Phillip slowly piece together that Hamilton poisoned the Bay to kill the fish to encourage the fishermen to sell to him, but that his poisons caused major changes in the behavior of local sharks.

Top left – Hamilton Lux; top right – Daniel Wilder; bottom left – Brook Wilder; bottom right – Phillip Wilder

First off, I’m unclear whether this movie is technically a SyFy Channel movie, as there is some talk out there that it was actually made for Hallmark Channel (Wikipedia says that it aired on SyFy, so that’s good enough for me), but I figured it doesn’t much matter – it’s about killer sharks, so who really cares? Now, onto the standard review.

The sharks were, overall, much better done than many I’ve seen (Shark Attack 3: Megalodon being probably the worst, as shown here), so kudos to them for that, though they also reused a lot of the same CGI footage over and over and over and over and over. The acting was also better than average, though it didn’t stand out as remarkable for these sorts of movies. All around, this was a pretty quality production. My major complaint (and it definitely was a problem for me) is that the plot seemed to skip some stuff, and the stories never really tied together. I get the idea that Hamilton caused the shark swarms, but they ultimately serve as more of a backdrop to the story of the Wilder family fighting to keep their property, which, in a movie called Shark Swarm, is kind of unfortunate. Now, don’t get me wrong – the sharks wreaked plenty of havoc. But the death scenes were more or less incidental, isolated, and random, with many of the characters dying having no story before or after. It seemed as though many scenes were put in just to remind us that there were killer sharks in the ocean, as if we had forgotten. Moreover, there’s a good thirty or forty minutes straight without any sharks at all, right in the middle of the movie (which, by the way, absolutely did not need to be the 2 hours 40 minutes that it was).

The first of many random victims

CGI that’s not terrible! It’s a miracle!

But before I go on, I want to cover a lot of general shark biology to serve as a reference now and in the coming week.

Sharks are incredibly good at what they do (given they’ve been around in one form or another for 420 million years or so). And obviously, they do attack humans. But they are also probably one of the more-maligned predators, as they don’t prey on humans regularly. (I should also mention that, given that the sharks in the movie are apparently hammerheads and great whites, most of the sources I site will be in reference to one or the other of those species, insofar as is possible.)

“Hello! I’m a great white shark! What’s your name?”

“Don’t mind me, I’m just a hammerhead.”

Many times throughout the movie, people are knocked into the water by sharks ramming into boats. Interestingly (to me, at least), this does happen, though not often. And while great whites typically hunt alone, they have been observed arriving and leaving locations in peaceful, if small, groups. However, they also freely prey upon other sharks, including sharks of the same species. Hunting techniques vary with prey and location – a good overview for great whites can be found here, but one of the coolest, I believe, is in a bay off the coast of South Africa, where sharks are known to attack prey seals so quickly they actually jump out of the water. Great whites can also smell blood from up to three miles away, and are sensitive to electromagnetic discharges (from, say, motion of prey), as are many fish. Moreover, sharks don’t need a whole lot of water to be able to attack, as seen here and here.

“I flew today. How are you?”

Now back to your regularly scheduled movie critique.

The movie opens with some of Hamilton’s henchmen dumping an unknown chemical into the bay, where it gets eaten by sharks during the normal course of feeding. Next thing we know, the sharks are swimming in schools, attacking in packs, and going after any random person who enters the water. One of the explanations for this change in behavior is that the chemical, being dumped intentionally to kill fish, is depriving the sharks of their normal food source, causing them to change their hunting tactics to help find food.

“Feed me, Seymour!”

I have two main problems with that idea, however.

The first is that, although there are some scenes of sharks attacking each other, by and large they leave each other alone, hammerheads swimming peacefully with great whites and vice versa, as though they decided that, since they were all hungry, they would not attack each other, and instead wait for hapless humans to go swimming. However, in general, the hungrier and more desperate a predator is, the more likely it is to attack and eat whatever it can find (just look at the infamous Donner Party for an extreme example). The point is that, were the sharks to experience severe starvation, I would expect them to be more likely to attack each other, and presumably, the swarm would take care of itself.

Like this, but more so

The second issue I have is that all of this supposes that sharks are territorial animals (which they are, to a degree); however, time and again, nature shows that when food runs out, animals move on. Sharks already migrate thousands of miles per year, including out into deep water, so the idea that a school of sharks would stay in food-poor waters for a prolonged period of time doesn’t seem likely to me.

“Later, bitchaz!”

The other explanation put forth by the movie is that the chemical somehow mutated the sharks in some way, causing them to be more aggressive hunters. And it is true that certain chemicals can cause fairly striking changes in fish, perhaps most famously by affecting the expressed gender of male fish, causing them to exhibit physical female sex characteristics. However, the chemical was intended to kill fish by exposing them to high levels of phosphorus. Typically, phosphorus itself doesn’t kill fish; instead, it causes eutrophication of the water. Basically, if enough phosphorus is added so, say, a lake that already has sufficient nutrients, the excess phosphorus will encourage the growth of algae, resulting in algal blooms. This has two main consequences – first, the algae can grow so thick that they block out light to places that normally would be sunny, which could kill aquatic plants growing on the bottom of the lake; second, as the algae die and decompose, the bacteria involved in breaking them down suck most of the oxygen out of the water, suffocating the fish, causing more decomposition and continuing the cycle. It should also be noted that, in coastal ocean waters, nitrogen, not phosphorus, tends to be the more limiting chemical, and hence excess nitrogen is more often the cause of oceanic algal blooms, instead of excess phosphorus. So as far as I can tell, the explanation for the fish kill in the movie (that phosphorus is the poisonous agent) doesn’t make sense. Of course, there are plenty of chemicals that will kill fish and that contain phosphorus. But no attempt whatsoever is made to explain just how it is that the sharks manage to survive ingesting the chemical while other fish die, so even if it did contain high concentrations of phosphorus and was poisonous, the sharks should have died as well, as far as I can tell.

Let’s go swimming!

And clearly, here’s another movie warning of the dangers of not protecting the environment. In fact, it’s hard to find a movie that pushes that point quite as hard as this one, other than maybe An Inconvenient Truth (which I have not yet seen, though probably should someday).

“DO IT!”

Finally, there are two more points I want to bring up that are unrelated to shark biology, but definitely comments on human nature (or movie writers’ nature…). First, while it seems as though this movie takes place over the course of maybe three or four days, no one seems to notice just how many people go missing or that something’s wrong. The government never steps in, in any capacity (law enforcement, coast guard, FEMA), beyond one lone EPA auditor who initially arrives to review Hamilton’s properties before development begins. The only people doing anything about the sharks are the Wilders, the EPA agent, and a colleague of Phillip’s at the university. But even as this group tries to stop the sharks, they fail to tell anyone in town, at all, about the swarm. I guess warning everyone to stay out of the water would be too easy (besides, look how well that worked in Jaws…).

The only one to realize there’s a problem

The second issue I have is with a scene towards the end, when a couple of the bad guys end up in the water as the swarm is closing in. Both of them grab onto a ladder leading up to a boat; but the first one, instead of grabbing the ladder with, I don’t know, her other hand so that she can pull herself out of the water, insists on reaching for the hand of her boyfriend, who can’t quite reach. She struggles for at least fifteen or twenty seconds before getting dragged under by the sharks. Now, I realize that pulling yourself out of the water without help can be really hard, but she doesn’t even try to get a foot on a rung. Then later, her boyfriend ends up in the same predicament, this time without anyone on the boat trying to aid him. In his case, he expends all his effort trying to punch the sharks away from him instead of trying to climb the ladder. Because one guy punching with one fist will obviously be able to beat off a school of twenty or thirty sharks. Obviously.

Needless to say, he too gets et.

“NOM!”

So that’s it for the opening of Shark Week here at Jumping Sharks. I took a good bite out of shark biology so as to be able to reference it later this week, so expect more focused science stuff from here on out, as well as more terrible shark-related puns. Until then, just try to stay afloat!

Posted on August 12, 2012, in B-movies, Movies, SyFy Channel and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. That body of water that’s green looks like the lakes around here. Also I’m really glad you looked into sharks and which species actually school. Mainly the only reason one finds great whites, for example, anywhere near each other is there’s tons of food (specifically in South Africa, but there have also been reports of white sharks congregating at whale carcasses near Australia).

    • More or less, yeah. Like I said, I found it really surprising to hear about any sort of “wolf-pack” style behavior at all, which has been seen, as mentioned. But great whites have also been known to interact peacefully with other sharks, such as tiger sharks, under normal circumstances as well; though to my knowledge, interspecies schools of sharks (such as the ones in this movie) don’t really happen without there being an underlying reason (such as a whale carcass).

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