(2021) Nature Documentary (Discovery Plus) Eli Roth, Boris Worm, Regina Domingo, Neil Hammerschlag, Gary Stokes, Alison Kock, Chue Lam, Ocean Ramsey, Peter Hammerstadt, Guy Medan, Lashanti Jupp, Michael Muller, Alex Hofford. Directed by Eli Roth
Like millions of others, Eli Roth saw Jaws in his formative years and was scared spitless. He developed a pathological fear of sharks that haunted him whenever he went to the beach. His fears would go on to lead him to become a director of horror films that include Hostel and The Green Inferno.
But he never got over his fear of sharks – that is, until he began to realize that far from the killing machines they were portrayed as in the movies, sharks actually attack humans extremely rarely and generally when they do, they break off the attack immediately when they realize that the human isn’t food. In fact, humans are far more dangerous to sharks than vice versa, to the tune of nearly a billion sharks estimated to have been illegally fished in the last decade alone.
It is one of the largest massacres of a single species in history. There are several reasons for it. Sharks often get caught in gill nets that are meant for other species of fish (they are illegal in most countries); shark liver oil is also used extensively in skin care products, including lotions, sunscreen, lip balm, lip gloss and lipstick – despite the availability of plant-based alternatives. However, one of the largest reasons is the popularity of shark fin soup, a delicacy in parts of Asia. Sharks are often butchered just for their fins, which command a high price. Hong Kong, by itself, processes 17,000 tons of shark fins every year. Often the fins are left to dry on street curbs, sitting in discarded cigarette butts, dog poop and swarms of flies. It’s enough to put you off eating for a week.
You would think that removing sharks from the ecological equation would be a boon for the food chain (or those below sharks anyway) but it is actually not. Areas in which sharks have been all but eradicated shortly become barren of all life. That’s because sharks help maintain ecological balance, acting as marine cops – keeping certain species away from where they don’t belong.
Roth, channeling his newfound respect – and even love – for sharks, decided to make a documentary and with the aid of actor/activists Leonardo di Caprio and Nina Dobrev (acting as executive producers), he traveled the world to see the slaughter in action, partnering with organizations like OceansAsia and Sea Shepherd to find solutions for the problem. He boards a notorious illegal fishing vessel with Sea Shepherd, showing without flinching the horrifying reality of the shark slaughter. The images are pretty graphic and should be viewed with discretion.
Roth has the passion of the convert, and that enthusiasm comes through in every word he utters. At times, the director who has portrayed scenes of people being disemboweled and eaten alive exclaims “That is the worst thing I’ve ever seen” when a shark is clubbed to death in front of him. But already his film is paying dividends; one of the largest shark fishing competitions in the United States was canceled this year, likely due to pressure put on from the film, and Congress is considering legislation that would make the sale of shark fins illegal in the United States.
There are woke reviewers who are criticizing the messenger and throwing out the message because of Roth’s history as a horror director. One sniffed, “He widely condemns women who wear cosmetics which can be made with shark liver oil. These words – coming from a director who helped coin “torture porn” and whose fiction work consistently and degradingly compares makeup-caked bombshells to animals – feel disingenuous at best.” For the record, Roth condemns makeup manufacturers, not the women who wear their products. He urges them to buy shark-free products. And incidentally, his movies tend to be just as degrading to men as well.
If there are some actual knocks for the film it could be that much of the information shared here can be seen in other documentaries, notably the two Sharkwater docs from the late conservationist Rob Stewart, but the footage of the industrial fishing vessels is unforgettable, and Roth’s earnest passion make this a worthy successor to Blackfish.
REASONS TO SEE: Roth is an engaging host. Sobering and sad.
REASONS TO AVOID: May be troubling for the sensitive.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity as well as disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Over 100 million sharks are killed in the wild every year (estimated).
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Discovery Plus
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/21/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sharkwater Extinction
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10