SHARK NIGHT 3D

The title tells you pretty much all you need to know about this would-be scary movie: it’s about shark attacks and sometimes the sharks jump into your face. Actually the title’s misleading in a couple of ways. For one thing, a lot of the action occurs during the day. And for another, the last reel adds a truly goofy explanation for what’s happening that transforms the mayhem from a natural occurrence into a nefarious plot. But although the acting and technical elements of “Shark Night 3D” are better than what you usually encounter in a Saturday night SyFy Network flick, that’s still where it really belongs.

The first third of the movie sets the typical stage for such stuff by introducing—after a brief prologue in which we see a girl being attacked by a shark, “Jaws”-style, in the lake to which they’re headed—all the prospective fishbait. They’re students at Tulane University, heading off for a weekend of swimming and sailing at an isolated estate in the Louisiana bayou. The hostess is petite blonde psych major Sara (Sara Paxton), who’s lusted after by studious pre-med geek Nick (Dustin Milligan). Also in the bunch are football star Malik (Sinqua Walls), whom Nick’s been tutoring, and his girlfriend Maya (Alyssa Diaz), as well as Nick’s motormouth roommate Gordon (Joel David Moore), Sara’s chum Beth (Katharine McPhee) and male model Blake (Chris Zyka).

Once they get to their destination, the group encounters a trio of locals. One is Sheriff Sabin (Donal Logue), a genial hayseed who mostly patrols the lake. The others are the duo of Dennis (Chris Carmack) and Red (Joshua Leonard). The former is a hunk who was Sara’s boyfriend before she went off to college, but who was disfigured in a boating accident during their last date. Red’s an arch-primitive who might have been part of the murderous clan of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” Neither takes real kindly to Sara’s friends, as a hackneyed dustup at the local gas station shows.

The meat of the movie—all served up very raw, of course—kicks in after a half-hour as the first shark attack picks off one of the principals during a water-skiing spree. From here on the picture centers on the others’ attempts to get help for the victim, whom Nick ministers to as best he can, even taking a dangerous dip to the lake bottom to retrieve a severed arm for reattachment. But their efforts are hampered by the entirely predictable fact that the area’s a dead zone as far as cell phone reception is concerned. Luckily Dennis and Red show up and offer to sail closer to civilization and radio for a rescue helicopter. Or will they?

It’s at this point that the script by Will Hayes and Jesse Studenberg pitches its major curve, intended to turn the movie into a commentary of sorts on the modern taste for real-life vicarious violence. It’s a weird choice in a picture that panders not only to that taste itself, but also takes pains to exhibit its female cast members in the skimpiest shorts and bikinis imaginable. And the twist is so patently absurd that it’s likely to raise some chuckles rather than shudders, though it does at least explain—though incredibly—how sharks have wound up in a fresh-water lake.

In production terms, “Shark Night 3D”is better than most movies of this sort. The underwater sequences are much less murky and indistinct than those in “Piranha 3D,” and Gary Capp’s cinematography is actually pretty professional, though the CGI shark effects are no better than ordinary at today’s standard. Unfortunately David R. Ellis’ direction is monotonous, failing generate much tension despite a great many false-start moments designed to do so, and all Graham Revill’s noisy score does is to offer proof that he’s no John Williams.

On the other hand, the acting is an improvement on that found in similar flicks. Milligan makes an agreeable lead, morphing fairly persuasively from nerd to hero even though he has so undergo some humiliating moments in the later nutty stages of the story (a scene with Logue is especially sad), and Paxton is nice eye candy, though her range is limited. Everybody else is at least acceptable, though both Moore and Leonard lay it on too heavily and Logue, normally a good actor, is allowed to chew the scenery to excess. Mention should be made of Sara’s dog, a lovely animal that gives one of the most restrained and naturalistic performances of them all.

If there were still drive-ins and a need for triple features to show in them, “Shark Night 3D” would be a perfect movie to book for them. But as it is, unless you’re a thirteen-year old boy whose appetite for this kind of thing wasn’t satisfied by Shark Week or a guy with a skittish girlfriend who might be inclined to bury her head in your arms at the sight of movie blood, it’s hardly worth your notice.