Thursday, June 30, 2016

Live Every Week Like It's Shark Week

Year: 2016
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Cast: Blake Lively, Óscar Jaenada, Brett Cullen
Run Time: 1 hour 26 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

It’s Shark Week, everybody! That time of year where we listen to the Discovery Channel’s lurid aquatic campfire tales and watch endless ad spots for Sharknado 4: The 4th Awakens (yes, that’s the actual title). But for those whose attention spans are longer, this week we turn to the silver screen for The Shallows, the last genuinely buzzed-about shark movie since… what? Open Water? I’m fairly certain nobody saw Shark Night 3D because not even I bought a ticket, and you know how much I’d love to see Katharine McPhee get devoured by a big ol’ Great White. But I digress. Let’s take a chunk out of that plot.

One blogger goes into the water…

In The Shallows, Nancy (Blake Lively) is an American surfer visiting Mexico after her mom passed away. She dropped out of med school (if I had a dollar for every horror movie character who was in med school, I wouldn’t have to watch this movie before noon to get the $6 discount tickets) and decided to travel to the secret beach her mom surfed at when she found out she was pregnant. While surfing some gnarly swells, a Great White Shark attracted by a dying whale attacks her, taking a chunk out of her leg and leaving her stranded on a rock 200 yards from the shore. Can she rely on her wits, her med school skills, and her nerves to help her survive?

And exactly what skills does her cleavage have to offer?

The obvious comparison here is Jaws, but for me The Shallows is more akin to Gravity. One woman must utilize everything she has to overcome a grave challenge, facing the mounting obstacles with wit and determination in the face of life-altering grief. Only instead of a mother losing her daughter, it’s the other way around. Unlike Gravity, The Shallows was not helmed by visionary director Alfonso Cuarón using technology so bleeding-edge the film had to delay shooting until it was invented. However, it was directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, whose 2005 effort House of Wax was an abomination, but a beautiful, stomach-churning one.

Collet-Serra’s filmography has been a steady drip of B-horror and Liam Neeson growlers, but he has more flair than that pedigree would imply, and he brings it in spades to The Shallows. I suppose it’s not difficult to make the Gold Coast of Australia look beautiful (the Aussie beach was subbed in for Mexico – that’s the real secret), but his early scenes of surfer porn are serenely gorgeous and sublimely chilling, alternating between expansive, gasp-inducing wide shots that dazzle the senses and plunging the camera underwater where the crashing waves give way to foreboding stillness. It’s all silent as the grave, lurking, making sure everybody knows exactly what this poor American tourist is in for

Speaking of beautiful things, The Shallows has what is so far the best integration of modern technology I’ve seen in a feature film. Although a line about Uber is dropped like a sack of potatoes and Nancy gets surreally terrific WiFi at this uninhabited beach, her phone screen is blended perfectly into the frame, appearing almost like a fuzzy, cloudy thought bubble next to her head rather than plonking down the cut-and-paste rectangle that has become S.O.P. for modern films. 

And when she uses FaceTime, the two video screens bounce around the frame, filling negative space and drawing closer together or further apart as dictated by the emotion of the scene. It’s a very clever, organic way to bring in modern tech without stopping the movie in its tracks, and I think it has finally toppled Chef’s three-dimensional Tweets from the throne of best cinematic smartphone depiction. Which is awesome, because I kind of hated that movie.

OK, that’s all well and good, but isn’t there a f**king SHARK in the Shallows?

You’re right, sassy caption. This is a shark movie, however much I’m obsessed with floating squares. Obviously, like in most survival movies, the shark is pretty much incidental. We’re here to see how Blake Lively deals with the situation the shark has trapped her in.

Because even in 2016, every shark movie is living under the shadow of Jaws, the Great White is mainly offscreen or in silhouette until well past the midpoint. The shift between the implied shark and the FX shark is pretty arbitrary and has next to no impact on the plot or tone because Collet-Serra is no Spielberg, but the action we get beyond this point is thoroughly entertaining.

The shark, which I presume to be mostly CGI (certain shots go far beyond presumption, but they’re hardly film breaking), is a credible, weighty threat, and its gnashing, thrashing antics provide an adrenaline spike to this tale of survival. But the effects I really want to talk about are all gore. The Shallows gets away with a surprising amount for a PG-13 film., and Lively’s collected gashes and bruises are a gruesome throwback to the days of Saw-adjacent “bad vacation” films like The Ruins, The Descent, or even House of Wax. It’s kind of refreshing to see a film that isn’t one of the safe, bloodless, haunting pics that are the only things to make it into theaters these days. Subtly realistic and powerfully disgusting, the gore is both a treat for horrorhounds and an important element in the overall story.

So. Sharks are awesome. Bloody gashes are awesome. But the surprising strength of The Shallows is Gossip Girl Blake Lively. Not having had much experience with her, I wasn’t certain she could carry what is more or less a solo film on her back, but she sails through this movie with aplomb. A performance is not great because a sexy actress is willing to look bedraggled with chapped Fury Road lips and bags under her eyes, though I do always admire Hollywoodites willing to go for it. But that’s just one fact of her work here, which isn’t life-changing but is at least magnetic and compelling. I never for one second doubted her bleak plight. Plus, she manages to sell the whole “talking to herself so we get dialogue” bit, even when the script gets a little loopy and obvious.

And this is far from a slight on her, but she’s bolstered by a breakthrough performance from an unexpected co-star: Steven the Seagull. She’s trapped on a rock with the injured bird, which acts both as a dialogue receptacle and a moral sounding bard. 

Nancy’s decision whether or not to snap the bird’s neck and devour it part and parcel is perhaps the most tense moment of the film because the seagull is giving a startlingly charismatic turn. Many, many, many people would cite this scene as evidence that this movie really shows its PG-13 hand, but for once I was so invested in the animal itself that I didn’t mind the toothless delivery. Now that's a performance. The forlorn and sympathetic bird is just doing its own thing and trying to survive, but it quickly becomes a companion, a beacon of hope, and GOD DAMN WHY IS THIS BIRD SUCH A GOOD ACTOR?!

Maybe he attended Seagulliard.

All in all, The Shallows is a pleasant surprise. It could have easily been as shallow as its title (a surfing montage and a featured Sia song certainly feint in that direction), but it’ really a thrilling, beautifully shot, simple, yet lasting survival piece. The emotional resonance is quick and dirty, but the thrills are non-stop summer gold. This is a rare shark film in that I’ not embarrassed putting it in the conversation with Jaws, although it’s obviously far slighter. But it capture that summer movie magic of being afraid to go into the water, and I kind of adore it for that.

TL;DR: The Shallows is a fun, lively (pun absolutely intended) shark attack movie.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 1331


  1. I like Jaume Collet Serra. He makes good solid thrillers that aren't great but are better than your average thriller.

    1. I haven't seen any of his Liam Neeson stuff, but I'd definitely be interested in at least checking out Non-Stop.

  2. Fun fact: I got to see Jaws last night on the big screen, and it was pretty great.

    But anyway, you already know that I love this dumb movie.