SHARK OF DARKNESS: WRATH OF SUBMARINE and AIR JAWS: FIN OF FURY
Pros: A solid documentary and an enjoyable piece of entertainment
Cons: Some people just won’t appreciate the fake documentary format
One of the channel’s most anticipated annual programming blocks, Discovery Channel’s Shark Week now appears to have adopted the “mockumentary” as one of its hallmark events. The 2014 edition of this week of shows dealing with the ultimate undersea predators kicked off on August 10 with three hours of all-new specials, culminating in the two hour Shark of Darkness: Wrath of Submarine. Having seen quite a few of the fake documentaries that have featured both on Discovery Channel and Animal Planet in recent years, I’d probably call Shark of Darkness one of the more phony-looking ones of the bunch – it’s full of improbable situations, lousy acting, unconvincing action sequences, and lots of iffy historical perspective. It appears that Discovery is no longer even attempting to convince people these shows are authentic, which is perhaps unsurprising after the furor surrounding last year’s Megalodon “documentary.” Though many viewers would quickly dismiss Shark of Darkness as “b.s.” or drone on and on about how they’re “disappointed” that Discovery Channel would air something like this, these people probably should just chill out. It’s well-produced and certainly decent enough for what it is.
If you really think this looks like a real newspaper heading, you need to get out more.
Prior to the hokey but enjoyable Shark of Darkness, Discovery did choose to air an hour-long legitimate documentary called Air Jaws: Fin of Fury. This program followed a camera crew around both South Africa and New Zealand in search of an approximately 18-foot-long great white nicknamed “Colossus.” This animal had been photographed several years ago performing attacks on a rubber seal decoy in which the shark launched itself out of the water in spectacular fashion, then had all but vanished from view. Circa 2013, photographer Jeff Kurr embarks on a journey to try and find the creature again.
Images taken of great whites performing aerial attacks in False Bay, South Africa are positively stunning.
Fin of Fury features quite a bit of discussion about white shark habits and habitation, exploring the notion that perhaps South Africa’s large colony of great whites migrates to New Zealand at certain times of the year. Per usual, this program features some stunning underwater images of sharks in action: it would be a treat for anyone interested in sharks, particularly the imposing great white. It’s pretty unbelievable to see the sheer number of sharks inhabiting the locations in which this show was filmed: at any given point, there are many (large!) whites surrounding the researchers. Additionally, this program featured a few new innovations for photographing large sharks in their natural habitat. One was a movable cage called the WASP (Water Armor Shark Protection) that allows a cameraman to crawl along the sea floor in a protective suit of steel. This device certainly demonstrated its integrity during Fin of Fury – several sharks appeared quite interested in the contraption and a few even attempted to attack it.
By far the more eye-opening sequence in Fin of Fury however was one in which a shark researcher named Dickie Chivell employs a female shark decoy in an attempt to lure large white sharks in. This decoy is one of the flimsiest things imaginable, made of interlocking wooden slats, and it appears to do its job remarkably well since numerous sharks come in to investigate and snap at the thing. Probably one of the most insane stunts ever seen during Shark Week occurs when Dickie decides to ride on and pilot the decoy while several large and inquisitive sharks swirl around. Considering how sketchy an idea this seems indicates that Chivell is either more courageous or more downright stupid (perhaps a combination of both) than most of his colleagues in the field of shark research, but this sequence (along with the genuinely educational value of the program) certainly made Fin of Fury something to see.
Chivell’s got some pretty serious balls to be attempting something like this – that shark decoy is FLIMSY!
Shark of Darkness, on the other hand, would likely either entertain or annoy any individual viewer. It’s worth pointing out that right off the bat this program declares that “events have been dramatized,” and it seems no accident that that statement is rather ambiguous. I’d go so far as to declare that this entire program is made up, but that’s more or less a moot point with regard to a program that quite obviously is entertainment and nothing else.
This program deals with the search for a 35-foot long great white nicknamed “The Submarine” which has been spotted intermittently in South African waters since the early 1970s – speculation about the existence of this creature was part of the inspiration for 2013’s Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives. This time around, Discovery Channel concocts a story about a whale watching ship that sinks in shark-infested waters, with the presence of the huge “Submarine” hampering the rescue effort. Combining interviews with survivors of the accident, “scientists” and shark eyewitnesses with “authentic footage” and an assured narration, Shark of Darkness is, like most of the other Discovery Channel fake documentaries, fairly clever in its set-up and construction. The fact that this program isn’t as factual as it claims to be however will likely make or break the show for viewers: those looking strictly for educational value will scoff at this thing, but those who just accept it as the entertainment piece is so clearly is will be entertained.
As with previous pseudocumentaries, there are several elements that give this one away as being fictional. For one, the “found footage” format used in the program simply doesn’t work after a while: it’s impossible to believe that this many cameras (which just so happen to capture all the major events in the story) were available during the rescue effort which supposedly happened rather hastily and spontaneously. Additionally, though the CGI effects seen throughout this program are capably done (images of a huge shark are added into several scenes, and we even see the beast taking a few human victims), they’re simply not all that convincing – if this footage did exist, don’t you think news agencies would have been all over it? Finally, the script during this program gets all the more ridiculous and incredible as it goes along. I was willing to suspend my disbelief for a certain period of time (and even accept the overly convenient video coverage), but when the “Submarine” takes on almost supernatural powers and scientists endlessly harp on about how intelligent the creature is, the credibility of the program quickly vanished.
CGI shark in 3…2…1…
Although the acting during Shark of Darkness frequently comes across as forced and exaggerated (the whole thing seems very scripted, and one woman’s tearful recollection of the boating accident almost borders on being humorous), the program does effectively crank up the suspense at various times. The “Submarine” is effectively hidden from view much of the time, giving the creature a sort of shadowy, intimidating presence that looms over everything else happening in the film. The imperfect “amateur video” images seen in the film also do their part to make the ongoing story quite tense – especially when one rescuer has to venture into the shark-infested waters in an effort to save three people still (inexplicably) trapped on the sunken vessel. Though this whole notion of people surviving on a submerged ship for quite a lengthy period of time seems completely unlikely (a pretty serious flaw in the script in my opinion), it certainly makes for a potentially frightening conclusion to the story.
Generally speaking, Shark of Darkness does a fine job of faking the documentary format, once again demonstrating that Pilgrim Studios (a sort of Discovery Channel R&D department who have produced most of these pseudodocumentaries) have mastered the format. By 2014, it’s been well-established that these sorts of programs are staples of both Animal Planet and Discovery Channel’s programming lineup, making the instantaneous chatter about how this program “isn’t real” more or less irrelevant – after all, is this program any less fake than the swarms of reality TV shows that pop up on Discovery Channel? If anything, I’d have to say that Shark of Darkness, like the other fake documentaries that came before it, deserves commendation for getting people’s attention – shows like this are designed to promote discussion and garner interest, thus I’d have to call the program a massive success.
Is “Submarine” really out there somewhere?
I’d be the first to declare things like this to be sketchy in terms of their motivations: I’d much rather see legit documentaries on Discovery Channel, but let’s get real: in an era where hype conquers all, it’s not at all surprising that shows like this have taken over even on the “educational channels.” The stream of live Twitter responses featured during the program shows where Discovery Channel’s priorities lie: they try to make these programs into an “event” rather than just another television show. Would a straight-faced documentary have gotten that kind of attention? Surely Shark of Darkness has its problems, but it’s perfect for what it is: viewers willing to roll with the punches are likely to enjoy it.
Amateur video used in Shark of Darkness: