Blue Water, White Death and Mission of the Shark: The Saga of the U.S.S. Indianapolis
Reviewed by Spencer Parsons, Fri., Aug. 10, 2007
Blue Water, White DeathMGM, $19.98
Mission of the Shark: The Saga of the U.S.S. Indianapolis20th Century Fox, $14.98
With August comes Discovery Channel's Shark Week, and with Shark Week comes a great wave of shark-related titles by profit-minded video labels. But this isn't just another August, since the current tsunami brings the long-awaited video debut of docsploitation legend Blue Water, White Death (1971), Peter Benchley's bible for Jaws, the only work of intentional cinema verité ever to play Tarantino's QT Fest, and the first 35mm film to capture great white sharks in their habitat, exhibiting their natural and justly celebrated cage-chewing behaviors.
While its genuine scientific and historic value remains more secure than Shark Week faves like Air Jaws, Anatomy of a Shark Bite, or Robo Shark just by virtue of having documented these previously elusive predators for the first time, Blue Water's real importance lies in how it threw off the guise of "educational" filmmaking worn by the Jacques Cousteau and Walt Disney nature films to simply travel the globe in search of big fucking sharks. While no one on the mission appears to be an actual scientist, the crew does include a folksinger, and he rates significantly more time on the soundtrack than an authoritative narrator who pretty much disappears after an initial barrage of factoids about old Carcharodon carcharias. So aside from spotting details Wes Anderson lifted for The Life Aquatic, we learn very little to contextualize or augment what we see, and it's entirely probable that the film's difficult-to-watch whaling footage constitutes a much more important historical and scientific record than anything involving the sharks. But no matter: What we see kicks ass.
As in all great pornography, the longer the sequences of "good stuff" stretch out in disregard of dramatic or rhetorical necessity, the nearer the work approaches a technical beatitude of pure abstraction. Any shred of scientific or even documentary pretension falls away in an ecstasy of whipping tails and swirling fins, as the lithe precision of editor John Maddox's montage loses itself in color, shape, and motion. All of which is to say, squalophiles and experimental-film nerds alike will want a full box of tissues close at hand.
The same cannot be said for the utterly mistitled Mission of the Shark, which promisingly concerns the 1945 sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis, made notorious by a chilling Robert Shaw monologue in Jaws. Starring John Boy, Mike Hammer, and that dude who shouldn't have quit NYPD Blue after one season, this lame cable original represents the opposite end of the Shark Week cash-in spectrum, with nearly as much time spent in a courtroom as in the water.
The production's sad prosthetic dorsal fin barely sees any action, and I count only three distinct shots of a distinctly nonthreatening shark, only one of which also includes people in the frame, while the other two get plugged in repeatedly to represent different sharks. Of course there's a proud history of this editorial technique in cheapster exploitation fare, but delivered here without particular élan or skill, the fish appears as a reluctant celebrity drawn in less by chum than contractual obligation.