Review: ‘Shark Night 3D’ is bloody good fun with a bite

When I left the house this evening to take in a midnight screening of “Shark Night 3D,” I did so after pressing publish on my “Apollo 18” review, and I was worried that I was walking into the same experience all over again since Relativity decided not to screen the film for critics at all.

Silly me.

Why was I worried?  After all, David Ellis is a reliably enjoyable maker of self-aware trash, and the film is called “Shark Night 3D.”  That’s one of those things that seems pretty hard to screw up.  Then again, Ellis is the guy who fumbled the should-have-been-hilarious-fun “Snakes On A Plane,” so there’s always the chance something like this won’t work.  Thankfully, this is “Final Destination 2” David Ellis this time out, and the result is nothing I would call brilliant, but it is indeed heaps of intentional fun.

I’m not kidding when I say I admire the craven commerce that goes into greenlighting a film called “Shark Night 3D”.  This is pure exploitation fare, and there’s no hiding it.  You can’t remotely pretend that this film is something other than exactly what it is.  Nobody has any pretense here.  You take a bunch of pretty young people, make sure a few of them can crack a joke, hire a former second-unit guy who can shoot the crap out of something, and you make sure the CGI sharks look good.  That’s it.  That’s all it takes.  And if you do it right, there’s a shamelessness to it that can work.  I’ve always said that there’s a part of me who thinks the best work John Sayles ever did, or at least the purest work, was when he was writing low-budget fare like “The Howling” and “Alligator” and “Piranha” and “Battle Beyond The Stars,” because he knew how to deliver exactly what the audience wanted without phoning it in.  He made sure to make things fun, to write characters that were decent and occasionally even unexpected, and he knew how to build to a big finish.  Beyond that, he managed to layer in just enough classic screenplay structure and thematic coherence to make those movies guilt free.  That is nothing to be sneered at, and it’s one of the reasons I admire him.

Hats off, then, to Will Hayes and Jesse Studenberg for getting this one  more right than wrong.  Their set-up, involving Sara (Sara Paxton) inviting a group of college friends to spend a weekend at her lake house, is quick and handled with a certain amount of finesse.  Dustin Milligan plays Nick, a doctor-to-be who gets invited along, and he quickly emerges as the film’s hero.  To fill out the ranks and make sure there’s enough chum to go around, we also meet Nick’s wise-ass roommate Gordon (Joel David Moore), the unreasonably hot Beth (played by the unreasonably hot “American Idol” alumni Katharine McPhee), the self-adoring pretty boy Blake (Chris Zylka), and soon-to-be-married couple Maya (Alyssa Diaz) and Malik (Sinqua Walls).  They have a run-in with some locals that Sara knows, including Dennis (Chris Carmack) and the shark-toothed Red (Joshua Leonard), and Sara also runs into her old family friend, Sheriff Sabin (Donal Logue).  Since the film opens with a shark attack on random hottie Jess (Christine Quinn), we know that somehow, there are sharks in a lake.  How they got there is something the film avoids revealing for a while, and once it does finally drop the information, it ratchets up the nasty fun of the movie.  It’s nice that they remembered to give the film some real villains outside of the water as well as inside, and the film really does manage to build from scene to scene instead of just repeating itself.

There are moments in the film that had me howling, and even if they weren’t supposed to, the film is so straight-faced about the way it handles its totally ridiculous premise that I admire it.  I can’t say I really cared one way or another about who lived or died, but I think the film plays its sympathy cards well.  It knows how to get you rooting for certain characters in certain moments, and it knows how to make you recoil from the bad guys.  When someone’s such a giant asshole that they throw an adorable dog into the lake to get eaten, you know that guy’s gonna get his, and how.  Ellis stages the attacks with a real joy, and I’m totally willing to cop to the fact that several of the jump scares got me.  More than that, though, he knows how to put a punchline on a moment.  The film is PG-13, and hardcore gore hounds might wish it went further, but I actually think the film is about as bloody as I would need to see.  The film also tries to slip in a little bit of a jab to the conscience as it makes some points about the hunger people have for footage of shark attacks in general, and so trying to make this even more graphic might be a strange choice.  What Ellis does instead of extreme gore is he finds a way to really make each scene feel different, with at least two examples of sharks managing to leave the water completely in pursuit of prey.  Both moments made me belly laugh, and I am fairly sure that was the intent.  You don’t shoot a scene like that and order the visual FX shot without a smile on your face.  It’s just too deranged otherwise.

The 3D is fine in the film, and fully of the exploitation model.  The film shamelessly sticks things in your face, and considering some of that happens to be particularly pretty flesh of both genders, the film is just pleasant to sit through.  The actors all handle themselves well.  Milligan and Paxton are cast just right as the leads, both of them coming across as decent and capable kids, cute as could be, and whenever their characters have choices to make, they tend to make good ones.  They deserve to be the survivors, and if you pay close attention, the script even manages to make Milligan and the bad guy pay off thematically with the way they behave.  One of them is willing to abandon a woman to die underwater, and the other is willing to fight to bring her back from the edge of drowning.  It’s screenwriting 101 stuff, but considering how bad some of the other genre films I’ve seen this month are (you really should read my “Caller” and “Apollo 18” reviews if you haven’t been warned yet), it’s nice to see how much fun it is when someone just plain gets it right.

I highly doubt I will still be singing this film’s praises once the fall season kicks in, but I would say anyone who buys a ticket for a film called “Shark Night 3D” will get exactly what they pay for, and these days, that can feel like a bit of a miracle.

“Shark NIght 3D” starts its feeding frenzy in theaters everywhere today.