Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Shark Week 2: 'Beyond the Reef' (1981)

Although most of the commentary about Beyond the Reef that I found online (it's never been released on DVD in the U.S., but can be watched in its entirety on YouTube) was about how people saw it as kids and had nostalgic feelings for it, it didn't really strike me as a movie made for kids. There's a deadly shark attack within a couple of minutes of the movie starting, and a few more later on. I'm pretty sure I saw a bare breast at one point, too. I suppose it's reassuring, though, that the parents of the '80s weren't so uptight about what their kids watched, and didn't let some partial nudity and deadly violence get in the way of letting youngsters see this lame-ass movie.

It's definitely the kind of movie that only seems good in nostalgic hindsight: The acting is terrible, the frequently dubbed dialogue is clumsy, the plot makes very little sense, and the life lessons are seriously muddled. At the same time, it's cute and upbeat, and the scenery (of Bora Bora) is beautiful. Most impressively, the filmmakers get a tiger shark to behave like a puppy, as main character Tikoyo befriends a baby shark right after its mother is killed following the attack at the beginning of the movie. As a kid, island native Tikoyo saves Polynesian-American girl Diana from a shark attack, then befriends Diana and spends time with her as he teaches his shark to be a loyal pet.

A decade later, the grown-up Diana (Maren Jensen, best known as Athena on the original Battlestar Galactica) returns from studying in America to find Tikoyo (Dayton Ka'ne) all grown up and palling around with a full-sized tiger shark, which is tame enough to carry humans on its back and splash up at Tikoyo playfully through a trap door in his hut. This is the fun, silly stuff that probably appealed to kids, and it's pretty impressive to watch, to see this creature that movies have conditioned us to believe is so dangerous and see it be not only harmless but also lovable. Director Frank C. Clark seems very aware of the preconceptions about shark movies, and he sometimes will show the shark (named Manidu, and supposedly containing the spirit of its namesake, a wise old mentor for young Tikoyo) in a stereotypical attack-movie shot (filmed from low and behind, with ominous music), only to have it do something adorable instead.

The thing is, though, that Manidu still kills people, but they're all evil developers who want to encroach on the beauty of Tikoyo's little inlet (and also exploit the cache of black pearls he lives right above). So it's like a cute agent of vengeance, and the movie never really reconciles this murderous impulse with the sunny vibe of Diana and Tikoyo's romance or the fish-out-of-water scenes with Diana's clueless (and perpetually horny for island men) American best friend. The villains (led by Diana's brother) are cartoonishly evil, but their defeat is sort of ambiguous and open-ended, and the movie just kind of stops without really resolving the story. It's based very loosely on a novel by Clement Richer (here is a Time Magazine review from 1951), which was also made into a 1964 Italian movie called Tiko and the Shark, and the fact that this is the most notable version of the story demonstrates just how unremarkable the whole thing is.

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