Jaws meets Godzilla in Peter Benchley’s Creature

Peter Benchley’s Creature is a campy dive into the deep end of late ’90s event TV, born from the mind of the man who single-handedly made sharks the stuff of cinematic nightmares with Jaws, this miniseries attempts to channel the same fearsome energy but with a hybrid twist – a shark-human hybrid, to be precise. Originally aired as a two-part miniseries on ABC in 1998, Creature is based on Benchley’s novel White Shark and brings its mix of suspense and sci-fi shenanigans to the small screen with mixed but enjoyable results.

The plot begins in the Vietnam War era, where a secret military project aims to create a new type of weapon by splicing shark DNA with human genes. Predictably, things go awry, the creature escapes, and the project is buried under layers of classifications. Fast forward 25 years, and we find marine biologist Doctor Simon Chase, played by the ever-earnest Craig T. Nelson, rehashing his paternal protectiveness from Poltergeist, now studying sharks on a secluded island. His quiet research is interrupted by a series of gruesome attacks, leading to the revelation that the creature still lurks in the waters, hungry for more than just scientific discovery.

Chase is joined on the island by his ex-wife, Doctor Amanda Mayson (Kim Cattrall) and their son Max (Matthew Carey). Cattrall, herself no stranger to the science fantastical after Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country and Big Trouble In Little China, adds an air of credibility to the proceedings, navigating some of the more ludicrous plot points with a straight face – okay, a straight face with the merest hint of a smirk. Their son, Max, on the other hand, often feels more like a plot device than a fully developed character. He’s there to add personal stakes to the already perilous survival ones. Rounding out the cast are Giancarlo Esposito – years before breakout role in Breaking Bad as the local eccentric “Werewolf”, showcasing a more manic range than the cool, calculating personas that would see him become near ubiquitous in genre fare some thirty years later. Colm Feore’s Admiral Richland, on the other hand, veers into caricature territory, chewing the scenery with a gusto that borders on parody and rivals the titular Creature for number of teeth marks left.

The real star of the whole thing, though, is the creature itself – a marvel of late ’90s practical effects courtesy of Stan Winston’s studio. This shark-man hybrid is both impressive and slightly ludicrous, a lumbering testament to the wonders of animatronics and prosthetics in the grand tradition of TV monsters. Its reveal is a slow burn, building tension with glimpses of its aquatic menace before unleashing its full, bipedal glory, a monster that combines the primal terror of a great white shark with the clumsy malevolence of a great big man in a rubber suit. It’s a sight to behold, and one that makes the extended runtime almost bearable.

The island setting, with its abandoned labs and foggy swamps, adds a suitably eerie backdrop to the tale and any scepticism you might have around a place being called Shark Tooth Island vanishes the moment you see it, a mountainous outcropping with the design subtlety of a Doctor Evil lair. The atmospheric tension is occasionally punctuated by scenes of frenetic action, though the narrative does tend to meander, padded with subplots and moments of pause that betray the anticipated commercial breaks during its 240-minute duration.

Benchley’s influence is palpable throughout the miniseries. Known for his deep understanding of marine life and his knack for spinning maritime horror tales, he imbues the script with an environmental undercurrent that adds depth to the otherwise straightforward monster hunt. His regret over demonizing sharks post-Jaws is subtly reflected in the narrative, which paints the creature not merely as a beast but as a tragic byproduct of human hubris and takes pains to rehabilitate the audience’s understanding of sharks which haven’t been horrifically mutilated by military experimentation. All in all, it’s a peculiar beast, never threatening to topple Jaws nor destined for cult status but in a Shark Weak full of abject inadequacy, Peter Benchley’s Creature manages to be pretty good, which in the circumstances is an absolute triumph.

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