The Shallows (2016)

The Shallows (2016)
Dir.: Jaume Collet-Serra
TC4P Rating: 7/9

The release of Jaume Collet-Serra's new film, The Shallows, to theatres a few weeks ago coincided almost perfectly with my week-long trip back to my hometown of Anchorage, Alaska. In advance of arriving back home, I made sure that Tony, one of my best pals from ye olden days, was made aware that I had every intention of seeing The Shallows with him in tow. Since Tony and his wife Janie were the very reasons why I was able to arrange airfare back to Anchorage (Janie used her air miles on my ticket, as a complete surprise to me), I was already planning to spend a good amount of time in their presence. But the coincidental release of The Shallows at the time of my arrival, whether or not it turned out to be a worthwhile film, was an absolutely perfect excuse to hang out with Tony regardless of societal obligations in the scenario.

This is because Tony is the one person that I can say, with absolute positivity, is a bigger fan of the movie Jaws than I am. Oh, I know some people who claim Jaws is their favorite movie, and I have no reason to doubt them. Anyone can throw out any movie title and claim it as their favorite, and without evidence to the contrary, I have to take their word for it, just as most people take my word that the original 1933 King Kong is my favorite movie of all time. Of course, all those people have to do is visit my blog, The Cinema 4 Pylon... or visit my office filled with all manner of Kong paraphernalia, books, comics, and toys... or have any conversation with me... or see me show up at otherwise formal events wearing my silk King Kong tie, to know the truth. But really, if someone says a film is their favorite, you pretty much just have to accept it. But Tony, since I have known him when we first met in tenth grade, has never stopped waving the flag for Jaws. Over the years, it has been a recurring theme for him. It has appeared on birthday cakes, in gifts from his friends, on his T-shirts,  and in his own collection of various books, original posters, stuffed sharks, toys, official merchandise, etc. Jaws is clearly his thing. Jaws runs about sixth on my Top Ten movie list of all time; it is number one on Tony's, even above Star Wars, another film that is a certain bonding factor between us, though he too probably loves that film more than I do. (He, for the record, most decidedly does not love Eraserhead, so I am alone in my group of friends in that department.)

Tony has also taken a step in which I would never divulge: taking diving lessons. He loves water and loves to swim in it as well, where I do not. I may love the ocean and especially love the life within it; Tony likes to swim in that ocean when he gets the opportunity. And I may have the shark blog and write about some of my favorite creatures as much as possible, but I know that if Tony were to ever start blogging on his own, I would probably have to cede The Shark Film Office over to him, or at least make him a co-author and editor, just out of respect.

So, it was not a small thing that a new major feature film featuring a plotline based around a great white shark was hitting theatres the weekend just before I was arriving in Anchorage. Not a straight-to-video or Syfy Channel cheap-o shark flick with low-rent effects, but a real theatrical feature shark film. Just as I knew that Friday in the same week up in Alaska was going to be taken up at the theatres to see The Legend of Tarzan with my other old school buddy Robear (we had bonded over Edgar Rice Burroughs books early on in our relationship), so I too knew that Tony and I would be seeing The Shallows together. Both scenarios were obviously meant to be.

Now, the outcome of all this might have been thoroughly depressing if The Shallows had turned out to be a massive pile of crap. While the advance trailers had looked interesting, the film had a couple of factors about which I was ambivalent. First, I was worried that the film was going to emulate Jaws too much, as if the only way that a film about sharks could actually turn out to be halfway good was if it followed the pattern of the only legitimate classic shark film as close as possible. I was still a bit shaky on director Collet-Serra, whose truly creepy film Orphan is one of the better modern horror flicks that I have encountered, but whose following project, the Liam Neeson thriller Unknown, I liked a little bit but not enough to bowl me over (even with a spare frame in the tenth). And as I had no interest in the two Neeson-starring films that Collet-Serra directed after that, I pretty much figured that I had him sussed out talent-wise. Good enough to direct a series of “Old Man Neeson” action-thrillers, but as it seemed he had turned away from true horror, I was no longer expecting much out of him as an artist.

Second, there was Blake Lively, the star of The Shallows. Apart from seeing her in the ill-fated DC superhero film, Green Lantern (where she played Carol Ferris), I knew Blake mostly from social media carousing, as she is a pretty regular figure in the celebrity gossip and fashion worlds, least of all for marrying her Lantern co-star, Ryan Reynolds. But I must admit that I did know her from someplace else, and it pains me greatly to admit it: Gossip Girl. This is not an attack on that show, for I have only watched the first few episodes, and so cannot really comment on its quality throughout its seven-season run. I started to watch the show briefly as Veronica Mars was ending (far, far too early, I might add). When I heard that Veronica herself, Kristen Bell, was going to be on a different show on the CW, I jumped over to Gossip Girl along with my little dream crush. It was rather quickly, however, that I found out Bell was only to serve as the narrator -- the "Gossip Girl" of the title -- and not actually seen on the show. (She did, apparently, a cameo near the end of the series run.) For me, Bell’s not being a visual attraction within the show itself was a major deterrent to my staying around to watch any more, because Gossip Girl as a show was not really all that interesting to me. I did stick around for a couple more episodes, because I had a short interest in co-star Leighton Meester, but that went away swiftly once I heard her talk in an interview.

As for Blake, I had thought all along that she was pretty but found her somewhat dull in personality, especially in talk show interviews. In regards to her acting on film, Green Lantern was my only true experience and not enough for me to base an opinion on her star capacity. (That film is someone's major fault, but I won't blame the stars of the film for it, who were at least adequate, and Reynolds finally showed he could pull off the super-powered thing with his Deadpool film… literally. Well, he does pull something off in the film...) For a few years now, I have seen trailer after trailer for Lively’s films, and had been content in the knowledge that her audience and my tastes did not really intersect, and so I thought that I would never really have to form an opinion of her acting ability.

So, here I am now, having not only watched The Shallows in a luxurious, reclining chair at a theatre in the Dimond Center in Anchorage (a mall that I took curious delight in walking through for the first time in eleven years and seeing what was left of the businesses that I remembered), but having also gone to the film for a second time over a week ago here in Southern California. The fact that I went to see it again is a clue as to what will follow in the rest of this review, for I prefer not to waste my last free ticket on something I did not enjoy in the first place. And my mood is one of elation, for it seems that I have basically found, in some ways, a form of cinematic holy grail: a solid, well-made, thoughtfully imagined shark movie. Sure, I have gripes about every film (even King Kong and Jaws… nothing is actually perfect), but I have a feeling that I will be not only watching The Shallows a lot over the next few years. It is also likely, after a second viewing, that my opinion of The Shallows will go up slightly with each subsequent viewing.

First, let’s have a quick look at the basic plot in a nutshell, or a conch shell if you would prefer. The scenario is deceptively simple. The Shallows revolves around Lively's character, Nancy Adams, a medical student from Galveston, Texas who is considering giving up her schooling following her mother's death from cancer. We see Nancy being driven in a Jeep through a jungle in Mexico to a secluded beach area, the same beach where her mother came years earlier after she found out she was pregnant with Nancy. Traveling with a friend initially, the other girl fails to join her as she has hooked up with a guy the night previous, so Nancy strikes out on her own to surf the almost completely barren beach and its waters on her own. Not the wisest of ideas, but she did not intend to be alone, and being a presumably strong swimmer and surfer (which she proves throughout the film), she is not one to waste the opportunity in reconnecting with her dead mother, at least in a spiritual sense.

But before we even meet Nancy Adams, there is an ominous opening sequence involving a small boy finding the remains of a shattered helmet with a GoPro-style camera mounted on the top. Playing the video, we see brief clips of two young, male surfers enjoying hijinks in the water, and then a lot of screaming on their part, and then a quick flash of underwater footage that ends with a shark speedily advancing towards the camera, it’s jaws agape. We then see the small boy running off across the sands of the beach towards an unknown destination, the helmet grasped in his hand. We don’t know how this scene fits into the rest of the film, just that it alerts us that something horrible has possibly happened at the beach. It is with this knowledge that Nancy enters the film and is dropped off following a surprisingly engaging dialogue with the Jeep’s driver, Carlos, who insists she call him Charlie, and who also playfully refuses to let her know the name of the secret beach to which she is headed. Because Charlie is so utterly polite and charming in this scene, this is meant to, naturally, build an instant, instinctual fear in the viewer -- especially the most racist members of an audience, casual or otherwise -- that Nancy is being set up for far worse than just dealing with a shark, such as rape or kidnapping. Regardless, we are already sitting down in a movie being sold completely as a shark attack story, so we can be sure of what will take precedence ultimately, no matter what else may be in store for Nancy.

Already, The Shallows is getting around the Jaws formula, which itself is the basic monster movie plot of yore. Such a plot was pretty much writ on tablets in a vault at American-International Pictures in Hollywood: there is an attack by something unseen, usually leading to a gruesome death, and we are pretty certain as an audience (because we are at the film and it has been promoted to us) that it is the monster or alien on the movie poster. But we play along anyway because it is fun, and watch the authorities argue amongst themselves about what has caused the death and whether precautions should be taken to protect the township. After several other deaths in increasingly more complicated set-ups, along with some quick flashes of the creature or near misses that build and build until the monster’s big reveal deep into the film, we finally get to the battle finale which usually leads to a particular hero’s triumph over the creature. That hero is often a policeman or member of the armed forces, though sometimes it is the boyfriend of the heroine of the film, who in many cases has been kidnapped by the monster. Jaws slicked up that formula and churned out probably the greatest, big-budget monster blockbuster of all time. Spielberg and his team did it by cleaning up the moldy particulars until the audience had all but forgotten that they had actually seen the film a thousand times before, just never so entertaining and thrilling. Which is one of the reasons why Jaws is so hard to top, and that nearly all other monster flicks that have followed in its wake either end up being tongue-in-cheek parodies of the form, or have to find wildly inventive ways to tell a monster story.

One of those ways, that truly came to the fore with the absolutely blindsiding success of The Blair Witch Project in 1999, was the found-footage film. While many still complain about the “shaky cam” effect of such films -- especially the early ones -- the difference between then and now is that the vast majority of the entertainment-consuming public now has a shaky cam of their own in their butt pocket. Most people have smartphones now, and each of those smartphones has a camera (that a great many of us choose to use in increasingly stupid ways). We should all now be used to seeing thousands of hours of amateurishly shot video, most of it stilted and not set on a flat surface or tripod, and so the complaints should really have diminished since the Blair Witch days. Lucky for me, while I may be considered “old” in relation to the current, preferred movie demographic, because I have an understanding of the history of cinema since its inception, I know that cinema has lurched forward due to constant advancements in technology. Not all of them stick around, but most end up getting sucked into cinema as a whole, and the art form continues to lurch forward. I willingly embrace each new technology that gets folded into moviemaking, whether many of my peers or elders approve of their use or not. It doesn't mean that I like every new advancement, but I do give it a chance to work upon me as a moviegoer first before deciding to discard it on a personal level.

Just as Hollywood finally accepted, fully by 1999, the use of personal video cameras (especially when the results lead to huge box office), so too have the filmmakers in recent years started to work advancements in smartphones, webcam, and virtual reality tech into their films. (This is different than trying to predict future technology; that is the realm of science fiction.) If you are one to pull a whiny Sean Hannity act and cry “Why can’t things be like they used to be when I was a kid? Waaaahhhh! What happened to my America? Waaaahhhh!”... well, you aren’t going to get very far when you go to the movies today. Teenagers and young adults have iPhones, and teenagers and young adults are the bulk of the movie-going public. Hollywood is going to gradually turn their storytelling options towards what teenagers and young adults recognize as viable art forms within their world. So, Hollywood will inevitably start incorporating these elements into the stories that they tell.

The Shallows doesn’t hesitate to show us Nancy relying on her trusty cellphone to keep in touch with her world. She texts with her hungover friend in the unnamed Mexican city, she Skypes with her little sister and father, and she texts some more. (The one thing she does not do is make a straight phone call, but who does anymore?) As she texts, the little text bubbles pop up on the movie screen instead of the camera cutting to her phone, so we get the quick sensation of a multi-camera split screen when it really isn’t. So too does the Skype session show up smaller in the frame, floating above the beach as Nancy strolls about on the beach. (I won't even get into whether or not she would be able to collect enough of a signal to Skype full video from an unnamed beach in the jungles of Mexico. Let's just say she did.) The cellphone use is key to the beginning of the film as it shows how much Nancy (and really, all of us now) relies on it to stay in connected to the world, and how much she is going to miss its use in relatively short order in the film. She will be as lost as any of us when we find our phones are not at our hips for two seconds, such as when we drain the battery and so we sit across the room from it while it is plugged into the wall charging. (I cannot count the number of times that I have just sat a few feet away from my phone, trying to work out exactly how much charge will be enough to do what I want to do on it. We, or at least I, have truly become pathetic.)

Counting on its potential audience (and really, I do not figure into that count), The Shallows smartly embraces the current technology to tell part of its story, but in other ways, it still reaches back in time to build the structure of its story as a whole. While it has deftly gotten around the Jaws/monster movie formula to this point, the filmmakers actually go to a source that also served as an inspiration for Steven Spielberg when making his shark movie: Alfred Hitchcock. (If you doubt this, all you have to do is see Spielberg’s monumental use of a dolly zoom shot in Jaws, which was employed most famously and effectively in Hitchcock’s Vertigo years earlier.) The Shallows is built on what some would consider to be a classic Hitchcockian scenario: a single major character (two, if you count the shark; three, if you add in a seagull who is onscreen next to Lively much of the time), a very limited supporting cast in direct contact (four men and a young boy), and a single, vividly photographed location, where many of its details will prove important at some point in the film. While such rigid structure has been used by a great many filmmakers, writers, playwrights, and other artists over time, as far as cinema goes, it is almost immediately identifiable in the eyes of the public with Hitchcock, especially in films like Lifeboat, Rear Window, Rope, and a great many of the episodes on his 1950s television show.

That Nancy will get trapped out on some rocks in The Shallows after having been attacked by a great white shark is what you will already know from the trailer, so I don’t feel bad about letting you in on that much. Most of what I have said is all within the first fifteen minutes of the film. To go any further than what I have told already in this piece would be a crime, as the film is still in theatres and yet to come out on video. What I can say is that I found the way the shark is portrayed in the film -- as my friend Yosh, another huge Jaws fanatic, said on Facebook, “that shark is a big asshole” -- to have been rather intriguing to me. There are dual reasons for the shark to be behaving in the way that is, and while marine biologists will argue either point vociferously as to whether great whites would react to such stimuli in the manner that this one does, I am able to accept them within the context of the story being told. Unfortunately, what you do get from the advertising campaign for the film is that this is yet another story of a rampaging, ravenous monster shark, along the lines of the serial killer shark(s) in the Jaws series. While there are a series of attacks in The Shallows, the fish’s behavior is wholly tied (or, at least, can be argued to be tied) to the twin reasons portrayed within the film. Or the fact, as Yosh said, that the shark is just a big asshole.

As for the shark effects itself, the CGI work is far, far better than I anticipated, and there were only a couple of moments where it verged into obviousness. A nice balance is achieved where my mind, for the course of the film (both times), was able to convince itself that the shark was actually in the water with Ms. Lively, even though she was never near one during the filming. (As Ms. Lively has said charmingly in interviews, there was a guy with a fin on his head in the water, so it is not "fully" CGI.) There are a couple of terrific moments where we get head-on looks at the shark in closeup, and they work marvelously, providing the intended thrills for the audience. However, I am not so pleased with the final shark effect in the film. Without giving away the ending at all, the final shark moment verges on the truly impossible, and took The Shallows out of the realm (at least for the few seconds that the camera engages on the aftermath) of the believable for me.

There is also a scene late in the film where the shark reacts to the stings from a large field of jellyfish in a way that I cannot believe at all, even in a fantasy setting. A shark’s skin should be thick and resistant enough to withstand these attacks, and if there is a moment in the film where I wish the filmmakers had found a way to go another direction, it would be with the jellyfish. While the scene, replete with the phosphorescent light emitted from the creatures, adds some remarkable visual flair to the film at that point in the story, I am not buying the shark’s reaction to their defenses. If there was a way to have Nancy encounter the jellies without having the shark involved, I would have preferred it.

Overall, though, the great white comes off mostly (for me) as a living, breathing member of its species, with the appropriate weight and speed within its setting, capable of existing on the same physical plane as Blake Lively's character, and that is all I can really ask of a CGI team. And when I do ask it, I rarely have that demand met. Believe me… I have suffered, as have we all in the past couple of decades, through some truly substandard and often absolutely shitty CGI work. When the film is Sharknado, you expect it, but when the film is The Mummy Returns, with a much, much higher budget than a Sharknado film, you wonder what the hell they were thinking.

Finally, there is Ms. Lively, who is quite comely in the early scenes while preparing for her surfing venture, as one would expect of her. That she will look the part of a surf bunny is not a surprise; that she will be believable while taking to the surf is a matter of opinion. She sold it to me, but I don’t surf. What I will comment on is her acting in this film, which went past surprising in the early portions of the film to outright satisfying. Previous to The Shallows, I could not imagine that I would wish to watch ninety minutes plus of Blake Lively stranded on a rock in the middle of the ocean talking only to a crippled seagull and an unseen shark, let alone see it twice. It is certainly an enticing project for any actor to get a chance to show oneself onscreen along against the elements. Recently, Robert Redford got a similar chance in All Is Lost (which also has sharks in it, though used more naturalistically), and he killed it, his mostly mute performance (and his age) giving the film added intensity. Knowing that she did most of her own stuntwork until there were only two weeks left in the production is also worthy of praise, as much of the performance is wrapped up in physical exertion of one form or another, chiefly swimming. While I am not ready to start an Oscar campaign for Ms. Lively, her performance here is thoroughly engaging and I had a delightful time watching her get bit by a shark, scraped up on the rocks and coral, wrapped up and stung by jellyfish, and attempt to set the bloody wing on a rather entertaining co-starring turn by her seagull pal. (And yeah, I meant to use “turn,” as in “tern”, in the same sentence as “seagull”.)

It does not take a lot of effort for a movie to get launched into the Top Five list of all-time shark movies, but The Shallows doesn't take the easy way to get there either. A semi-competent remake of the original film would be enough to land it near the top of the list; that’s how slim the pickings for good -- let alone, great -- shark movies are. The Shallows is not content with simply being another Jaws, and shoots instead for being a Jaws for today, loaded with modern touches, and skips past the rote monster movie plot of yesterday, to give us a combination of surfing movie, DIY post-127 Hrs. survival flick, and Hitchcockian ambition. That it makes it well past the halfway point of fulfilling this ambition is admirable enough. That it does so entertainingly without making one feel an idiot for being entertained thusly is also worthy of applause. Despite a few glaring factual errors, this is a really good shark movie. And Jaws itself was loaded with the same mistakes.

The Shallows may not be the classic, epic adventure that Jaws is, but it is certainly good enough to swim around the All-Time Top Shark Films list somewhere below it.

P.S. Tony really loved it, too.

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