There's no denying the importance of Sharkwater's message: the world's sharks are being fished to the point of extinction, a development which could seriously upset marine ecosystems and have severe consequences for humanity. But there's no escaping its flaws as a film. The clumsy pacing, sometimes laughable narration and overall lack of cohesion detract from the message. If Canadian director Rob Stewart wants to be seen as a dedicated environmentalist, he's achieved it. If he wants to be regarded as an impressive filmmaker, however, he's got some work to do.
Stewart--who also narrates the film--reveals early that he's been fascinated by sharks since his childhood. "I always knew," he notes, "that sharks weren't killers like I was taught." Indeed they're not. The shark is actually, as Stewart observes, a "perfect predator" that has no interest in eating humans and has a sensory system so finely honed that they rarely do.
So, contrary to what a barrage of news reports and Speilberg movies would have us believe, we don't really need to fear sharks. Though viewers are not likely to adopt Stewart's love for the species, it's clear that sharks have gotten a bad rep, and that, love or hate 'em, they're a crucial strand in the web of life--one that endures more harm at the hands of humanity than it inflicts.
The staggering decline in the shark population--it stands today at just 10 per cent of what it was in 1986--is due in large part to the popularity of shark fin soup, a delicacy in much of the Far East.
While in Costa Rica, Stewart uncovers a fin smuggling ring run by the Taiwanese mafia. This discovery is supposed to be the film's dramatic high point, but it falls flat: the syndicate might be callous and greedy, but it doesn't seem particularly threatening. Having exposed sharks as harmless, though, Stewart seems to have felt the need to find some source of suspense for the film.
There is, in fact, no real suspense in Sharkwater, and that's where its largest fault lies. Stewart makes another attempt at stirring it up by documenting his bout with a flesh-eating disease, but it's clear he could never have released the film if he hadn't survived.
What Sharkwater has in abundance, in spite of it's flaws, is beauty. Stewart's images of a shiver of hammerhead sharks congregating off the coast of Costa Rica, of a gigantic lone whale shark and of the amazing array of wildlife found on the Galapagos Islands are all mesmerizing. Most people will never see any of these fish in person, but it's clear that something intangible but important will be lost if any of them become extinct.
It's hard to know how many people Sharkwater will inspire to help save its subject, but it does give a boost to this unfairly maligned animal, which is clearly Stewart's main ambition. To anyone willing to accept this aim and take the rest with a grain of salt, Sharkwater's flaws as a film will seem trivial.