For an example of a king in its own genre, there’s no beating Jaws. Spielberg’s shark-horror movie was so iconic that it scared off almost all potential competitors. Sure, every once in a while you’ll see a Deep Blue Sea or an Open Water or even a Sharks In Venice, but the field is comparatively puny. Look at how many haunted-house movies or demonic-possession movies or vampire movies there are, and you’ll have to agree. Human beings have a potent and primal fear of sharks, to this day, even though our species has virtually decimated theirs – it’s an irrational fear, but it still persists. Normally anything that scares this many human beings gets dramatized on film more frequently, but not sharks. And that mostly because Jaws was so damn good. Most filmmakers don’t want their movies to live in that shadow.
Soul Surfer is a shark movie, technically, but of course I know it’s not meant to be a horror movie. It has a shark in it, but only for about thirty seconds. Soul Surfer is meant to be an inspirational sports movie, based on the true story of Bethany Hamilton, the teenaged competitive surfer who made headlines first by having her left arm bitten off by a tiger shark and then by returning to the world of competitive surfing (and the daytime talk show circuit).
I’m not such a monster that I would ever poke fun at Bethany Hamilton – however, she did license her life story to writers and producers of Baywatch, and if I can’t make fun of that, then what’s the point of having a sense of humor in the first place? Writer-director Sean McNamara didn’t work on Baywatch – he directed the Alba-free Into The Blue 2 and many episodes of That’s So Raven – but he did work on the script along with nine (!) other credited writers, most prominently the ones who brought the world, especially Germany, many great works including Baywatch Hawaiian Wedding and the Hulk Hogan series Thunder In Paradise.
This story doesn’t have to be maudlin to be inspirational – look no further than 127 Hours. Real life doesn’t need ghosts or goblins to be terrifying; mortal danger exists all around us at all times, and horror is just one tool we use to conquer our fears just so we can get through the day. The loss of a limb is a much more common occurrence than a shark attack, it’s a legitimate phobia, chilling to the bone, and this disturbing notion has been cinematically exploited in movies as varied as Evil Dead 2, The Empire Strikes Back, Saving Private Ryan, Predator, Robocop, oh okay, and Jaws 4. By harnessing the awful intensity of the shark attack, Soul Surfer could have capitalized on that primal fear to make audiences sympathize with Bethany, the way that Danny Boyle brought audiences directly inside the experience of Aron Ralston in 127 Hours. Then, her recovery and her eventual return to the ocean would have had a true sense of triumph. Instead, the shark attack lasts less than a minute, and nearly off-screen – it’s just a fin and a splash, basically. I know this thing is a PG, but come on, so was Jaws. Now I’m not made of stone, so admittedly, it’s a harrowing three or four minutes as the poor girl is rushed to the hospital. But it’s really not long before the onscreen Bethany is on her feet and looking towards the waves again. Then the tears of joy start rolling and the pop-country song plays, and anything the movie had going for it is long gone. Missed opportunity.
But not if you leave the movie right after the shark attack…
That’s how I watched Soul Surfer, and it’s the only way to do it, assuming you want to see a harsh, uncompromising horror film tucked away in a treacly, preachy family film. Soul Surfer up to and including the shark attack, or Soul Surfer: Redux to shorten the terminology, is a profoundly unsettling parable of man versus nature – or, more specifically, man brutally victimized by the whims of nature.
Bethany (AnnaSophia Robb) is a pretty blond teenager who loves her family almost as much as she loves to surf. She loves her blond parents (Dennis Quaid and Helen Hunt, looking like they spent a lot of time in the sun preparing for the role) and her two brothers, and she loves her local church youth group, the leader of whom is played by American Idol star Carrie Underwood. All these people live in an idyllic sun-world also known as Kauai, Hawaii, a truly beautiful place which is photographed here without much inspiration by journeyman cinematographer John Leonetti (Piranha 3D). The location is pretty, but there’s something not quite perfect about this world – everything looks a little too blond, a little too made-for-cable, not at all ugly, but frankly kind of dull. That doesn’t deter our protagonist, who bounds out into the surf with her board and her friends, cheered on by her family, with all of the promise of life, untroubled by any of its complexity or dark poetry.
One overcast morning, Bethany goes out surfing from a remote location with a friend and her father (Kevin Sorbo, TV’s Hercules). The musical score is done by horror-film composer Marco Beltrami (Scream, The Faculty, Blade 2). We’re a ways from a Carrie Underwood campfire sing-in. The surfers paddle out into the murky water, some distance from shore. The waves lap quietly at the boards. Bethany dips an arm into the water. Something dark, large, and sleek briefly submerges, then disappears back under the surface. Bethany’s arm is gone. She goes into shock, bleeding mortally. Her friends and Mr. Sorbo leap into desperate action, using Bethany’s surfboard as a makeshift battlefield gurney. They load her into the car and race for the hospital. Elsewhere, Mr. and Mrs. Quaid get the call, and rush to meet the car at the hospital, where Bethany is being wheeled into the emergency room. The unforgiving drones of overworked medical equipment drown out the soundtrack.
What Soul Surfer: Redux tells the viewer is that the universe is random, unpredictable, and horribly cruel. It will literally attack you, without any warning, even in a moment of peace or happiness, and there’s nothing you can do about it. You can be a pretty blond white girl with pretty blond parents living on an island paradise, living a life of sport and prayer with all the possibilities in the world wide open to you – and then the sea will rise up and take your arm. And there’s nothing you can do about it. There’s nothing anybody can do about it: Not your movie-star parents, not your handsome friends, not Carrie Underwood and her prayers, not God, not Jesus, not even mighty Hercules himself. This is real life, and it can end at any minute.
It’s an alarming thought. It’s probably true. It’s as dark an ending as any movie I can think of off-hand that isn’t The Exorcist, Seven, or The Great Silence. It’s a bold statement for the God-fearing, Baywatch-making imagineers behind a family movie like Soul Surfer to make, except of course that they totally didn’t.
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