Spring Break Shark Attack is a disaster movie. But while it follows in the wake of great movies like The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure, it is also inept in a way that seems intentional. It seems like camp.
While camp is often reduced to the phrase “So bad, it’s good,” this description doesn’t quite catch the nuance of camp. As Susan Sontag observed in her 1964 essay “Notes on ‘Camp’,” there’s a fundamental honesty in even the campiest work; it is “the attempt to do something extraordinary. But extraordinary in the sense, often, of being special, glamorous. (The curved line, the extravagant gesture.) Not extraordinary merely in the sense of effort.” Note the extraordinary simplicity of Spring Break Shark Attack‘s premise. It can be distilled no further than its title suggests. Even the classic Hollywood pitch—“It’s Jaws meets The O.C.”—unnecessarily complicates things.
But the movie also suffers from a kind of knowingness. Paradoxically, its aim to be laughed at creates an emotional disconnect, a kind of “winks and nudges” attitude that reassures the audience they are smarter than the film. Spring Break Shark Attack opens on a group of upper middle-class women sipping martinis as they bob through the ocean on a raft. “Peace and quiet,” the first housewife murmurs. “It’s what we’ve been desperate for.” (Get it? If not, wait a few minutes for the “Desperate Search for Missing Housewives Continues” headline that appears a few minutes later.) Their floating cocktail party is then crashed by ravenous sharks.
This would be the “extravagant gesture,” were it not for the film’s persistently calling attention to it. Spring Break Shark Attack has to remind viewers just how bad it is. This is the problem with intentional camp, even when executed perfectly, its fundamental obsequiousness. Of course, such audience-fawning is virtually built into television, where this film originated (on CBS in 2005), but Sontag notes, “One must distinguish between naïve and deliberate Camp. Pure Camp is always naive. Camp which knows itself to be Camp (‘camping’) is usually less satisfying. The pure examples of Camp are unintentional; they are dead serious.” Without that seriousness and honesty, the film only exploits the audience (holding it through commercials) by flattering it.
One way to make an audience feel it’s not being exploited is to introduce a marginally engaging plot. From those despairing Hausfrauen, the film cuts to bright young Danielle (Shannon Lucio), whose adulterous father wants her to spend her Spring Break with Habitat for Humanity rather than with her friends. It’s not that Danielle doesn’t like charity, but, she argues reasonably, that can wait—she just wants to have fun. Her father insists, dismissing Spring Break in Florida as “dumb-asses jell-o wrestling” (who do appear in the film), and a playground for the male libido. Those carnivorous frat boys are, yes, “sharks.”
So Danielle does what any slightly rebellious teenager would do: she goes anyway. (Lest her charity work didn’t convince you of her moral uprightness, she’s also a virgin, and the only one in her circle of friends who’s not borderline retarded.) From this point on, the movie is firmly planted in The O.C. territory. Danielle meets a boat mechanic named Shane (Riley Smith), who also has a favorite bookstore. She starts to fall for him, while she’s also pursued by J.T. (Justin Baldoni), the kind of gold-card-flashing, bronzed meathead her father warned her about. He spikes her drink with roofies, a plot turn that allows Shannon Lucio to reenact her drugged-out meandering from the first season of The O.C.
This lust triangle allows every character to play to type, and is completely irrelevant to the titular Spring Break shark attack. The roofies/hot-bodies/drunken debauchery plotline helps stretch Spring Break Shark Attack to 88 minutes, but it’s the shark attacks that offer the most possibilities for camp: a windsurfer glides directly into the mouth of a waiting shark; a drunken, wistful co-ed dangling her leg from a dock is plucked from her reverie by an unsympathetic Great White; and one attack somehow (physics aside) culminates in a geyser of blood erupting from the ocean. The attacks, by the way, are so successful because the sharks have learned to hunt in packs. They are more cunning than their human adversaries.
These are absurdities, but the film doesn’t take them seriously enough. On the line between “camp” and “bad,” Sontag writes, “When something is just bad (rather than Camp), it’s often because it is too mediocre in its ambition. The artist hasn’t attempted to do anything really outlandish.” The failure of intentional camp is that it aspires to so little. Even Spring Break Shark Attack, despite its mind-blowing premise, strives only to flatter its audience. Given the opportunity to achieve some truly extraordinary, truly outlandish, it settles for something truly bad.