Did you know that sharks are only responsible for five human deaths each year? In comparison, elephants are responsible for at least a hundred! Yet somehow (here's looking at you, 'Jaws') sharks have been portrayed as the murderous beasties of the ocean; creatures who lurk in the shadows of the tide just waiting for unsuspecting children to swim away from their parents. But the facts are much more astonishing than that -- did you know that shark fins are a delicacy in China and sell for nearly $200 a pop? That there's a vast network of money-grubbing pirates and poachers across the globe driving sharks to the brink of extinction? That the world's shark population has decreased by 90% as a result of unchecked human hunting? Neither did I.
In the award winning documentary, 'Sharkwater,' biologist Rob Stewart sets out to inform people about the true nature of sharks and the unregulated slaughter that has put the entire species at risk. Teaming up with uber-controversial conservationist Paul Watson and the crew of the Sea Shepherd (a ship with somewhat questionable tactics), Stewart goes on a globe-trotting journey that leads him into harm's way on more than one occasion. His team evades gunboats, engages in sea battles with poachers, and pulls back the curtain to reveal a sinister organization that inhabits ports around the world. Sound far-fetched? I thought so too... until I watched it all.
I'm not exactly sure how to classify 'Sharkwater,' but I can say with confidence that it's nothing like 'Planet Earth.' If anything, its tone and style are strikingly similar to 'An Inconvenient Truth' and 'Enron: Smartest Guys in the Room.' Equal parts investigative journalism, political commentary, and scathing exposé, Stewart's documentary offers a sweeping view of the threat humanity poses to sharks and the planet at large. After a brief introduction to the ocean's most notorious predator and an overview of society's misconceptions, greed and corruption take center stage. Stewart works to end long-line fishing in the Galapagos, stop illegal fisherman off the shores of Costa Rica, and even expose the dealings of a secretive and powerful black market. Sure, we get the usual top to bottom lecture on sharks and their behavior, but I was pleasantly surprised to learn about things I never thought would be covered in an undersea documentary.
I certainly wouldn't call 'Sharkwater' objective -- Stewart makes his point early and pounds it home with stomach-churning video and hidden camera footage every other second, but this is that rare documentary where I wasn't bothered by an unbalanced, one-sided presentation. Honestly, the disregard for decency and global corruption Stewart uncovers so enraged me that I couldn't think of a solid argument to justify such travesties. I'm sure there will be plenty of people who argue "sharks are just animals" and "people have to make a living," but those benefiting from this slaughter aren't simple hunter-gatherers. These are wealthy syndicates whose quest for money knows no bounds. While I squirmed at Stewart's villainization of common fisherman (whom I assume are working for pennies just to provide for their families), he's quick to level the ultimate blame on the behind-the-scenes fat-cats reaping the rewards.
The lone annoyance I had with the documentary centered around Stewart's distracting narcissism -- no one will mistake him for a behind-the-scenes documentarian. If I had to endure another lingering shot of the surfer-dude turned preservationist preening for the camera, I would've had to take a ten-minute break from the film. Stewart ponders about humanity at the edge of the ocean, takes a long dive in a speedo, and lies around in a hospital bed staring out his window after falling ill. Even his narration bristles with pretension and self-absorption. I appreciate his views and the factual perspective he brought to 'Sharkwater,' but I often found myself wondering how much of his concern was genuine and how much was exaggerated to garner sympathy for his cause. Thankfully, his third act risk taking disrupted my doubts and made his poised demeanor seem more believable.
In the end, 'Sharkwater' does its job well. It illuminates a vicious practice I knew nothing about, uncovers a deep-rooted corruption, and reveals a huge problem that could easily be tempered if citizens and politicians took a moment to care. While it won't slap you in the face with the same whack as 'An Inconvenient Truth,' it still offers a compelling exploration of a great danger to a species, humankind, and the planet itself.
(Note that while 'Sharkwater' is rated PG, it's definitely not appropriate for young children. The film is graphic, disturbing, and will leave anyone under six in a heap of tears. Parents consider yourself warned.)
As one would expect from most documentaries of this sort, the picture quality in 'Sharkwater' is at the mercy of its various video sources. The 1080p/MPEG-2 transfer looks gorgeous when it cuts to undersea footage captured on HD cameras, but takes a serious hit any time it's forced to rely on standard definition footage when Stewart climbs out of the water.
Shots filmed in HD are nearly perfect. Colors pour off the screen and give the aquatic life a three dimensional quality that was simply breathtaking. Better still, the oceanic vistas are sharp and packed with detail -- I could count every scale and practically feel the texture of every fish. These moments easily live up to the excellent PQ exhibited on high-def heavy hitters like 'Planet Earth' and 'Galapagos.' While color banding occasionally creeps into the ocean waters, it's relatively meek and not nearly as intrusive as I thought it would be in an undersea documentary. Noise, artifacting, and edge enhancement are nowhere to be found and a light veil of grain is the only thing that disrupts the otherwise crystal clear image.
The SD footage, on the other hand, is blocky, stretched, dull, and bland. Static interview scenes fare better than shaky handheld camera shots, but none of it looks any better than an upscaled DVD presentation. However, the SD elements shouldn't scare anyone away from 'Sharkwater,' and serious documentary fans will shrug it off as par for the course. Considering the nature of Stewart's investigation, this is the absolute best 'Sharkwater' could possibly look and it quite simply blows the standard DVD out of the water (pardon the pun).
Despite its uneven video quality, 'Sharkwater's standard Dolby Digital 5.1 surround mix (448kbps) did managed to take me by surprise. Documentaries are generally chatty affairs, leaving little room for environmental acoustics or engaging music, but 'Sharkwater' takes the time to utilize bass-heavy tracks and pulsing LFE support when Stewart makes his way underwater. The surround channels are used to full effect to spread orchestration around listeners and immerse them in the documentary. Whale songs, thrashing water, and seal cries are crisply defined and accurately reproduced in the soundscape. I was pleased to hear how much sound registered in the rear speakers - the Galapagos and other locales were packed with environmental ambiance and I rarely detected any compression limitations. More importantly, sound prioritization is on point, providing the viewer with an appropriate array of sounds necessary to each individual scene. The tone and tenor of the narration is comfortable, interview dialogue is clear, and subtitles are used anytime the original source falls short.
Like the video presentation, the audio is bound to its source. Handheld camera footage and on-the-run microphone work deliver expectedly hollow sound. Conversations captured on lesser cameras suffer from wind noise, crackling, and low quality. Still, after factoring in its accomplishments, this DD track sounds as good as one could imagine. Sure a lossless track would probably bring out further nuances in the soundtrack and the environments, but I doubt such inconsequential improvements would really increase the value of the disc. All in all, 'Sharkwater' provides a great Dolby mix that sounds much better than the audio found on many other documentaries.
The Blu-ray edition of 'Sharkwater' includes all of the special features found on the standard DVD. While extensive deletions and commentaries would have been ideal, I had to settle for a rather ordinary collection of brief extras that failed to satisfy the interest generated by the film.
Subjective and occasionally pretentious, 'Sharkwater' manages to rise above the questionable behavior and preening of its protagonists to deliver a startling exposé of a harvesting industry threatening the species and the planet at large. As a high-def release, the documentary fares well. It features a great video transfer (that only suffers from the unevenness of its HD and SD sources), and an excellent audio track that keeps the film moving. While 'Sharkwater' doesn't offer an extensive supplemental package like I had hoped, this release will still be an excellent addition to any documentary enthusiast's shelf.