Back into the ocean for the second time in a week. This time the animated fish is not the friendly Dory, neurotic Marlin or sweet little Nemo. The costar of this movie is a descendant of Bruce from “Jaws“, a giant aggressive shark that is defending it’s feeding territory in the most violent way imaginable. While it is not a classic film story about character and class with humor and drama, as it’s progenitor was, “The Shallows” is an effective thrill generator with enough personality to keep us engaged and shot with the technological innovations of the last 41 years so that no one will be complaining about a mechanical shark.
Four years ago, Blake Lively was the most irritating thing about the most irritating movie I saw in 2012, “Savages“. She is a beautiful woman who could not act her way out of a paper bag in that film. In this movie, she has to carry the whole story on her shoulders and she was excellent. I doubt that anyone will consider her award worthy because of the nature of the movie, but before the Academy doles out another of it’s obligatory Meryl Streep nominations, they might want to take a look at this largely wordless performance. There are places where dialogue comes up, but 80% of the movie is performed by body movement and facial expressions and she sells the pain, fear and frustration of this situation without having to rely on words . To me, that is an effective performance.
If you see any of the promotional material for the movie, you will know the plot. She is surfing in an isolated spot and gets trapped by a shark. How this is set up in an interesting way and where they find the drama and tension in the story is the success of the screenwriter and the director. Writer Anthony Jaswinski finds effective ways to build a progressive story about a woman trapped on a rock. There are some good complications that make for some excitement, and the character gets to be relateable through some reasonably good set up before the first attack and then cribs a little from “Cast Away” for the character in the last half of the movie. I won’t give anything away but not all the performers are human.
The parts of the film that are most contemporary and therefore a little more likely to be dated soon involve the visualization of the social media world of today. Nancy texts her girlfriend who has traveled with her to Mexico but skipped out on the surfing part. Those messages are projected off her phone and onto the screen briefly. When she skypes with her sister and father back in Dallas, we get picture in picture split screens so that she can interact with the characters who are not really there. The director Jaume Collet-Serra, is probably best known for a trio of Liam Neeson action pictures in the last few years, “Unknown“, “Non-Stop” and “Run All Night“. They were all effective action flicks that required less style and more direct approaches, although each of them did have some key visual moments in them. To me, the best visual moment in the movie occurs before the first shark attack when we see the shadow of the shark in the wave that Nancy is surfing. It is a effectively shocking visual. I was a little less excited about the lingering camera as Nancy uses her earrings to try to close a gash wound in her leg. It felt a bit like that moment in “127 Hours” that everyone knew was coming, but at least it was over somewhat quickly. That was not the case with this film.
There are other people in the film that are attacked by the shark, so all the action does not focus completely on Lively’s character, but those other victims are so anonymous that it is hard to have the reactions we probably should have. We can be horrified but not necessarily empathetic. In “Jaws“, Chrissy, the first victim is someone we can identify with because of the situation and the way she reacts. None of the characters in this film get that opportunity, they are mostly chum for the blood and guts crowd. We will be startled but not necessarily horrified. Nancy’s battle against the shark is a different thing though. Ms.Lively has provided a sympathetic character who is assertive, clever and resilient. She is the Leonardo character from “The Revenant” without all the mysticism. Replace the bear with a shark and I think, at least when it comes to action, the film works just as well and at nearly half the time. The high definition shots of surfing and the ocean from above the surface and below are reminiscent of the grounds eye view of the trees and the birds eye view of the forest that we got in that survival film set two-hundred years ago. The contemporary photography thoughj can at least get some product placement money from Go-Pro.
I wanted this film to work because I love a scary movie with a shark. It’s not epic as the grand daddy of all shark films is, but it does one of the same things that the Spielberg film did in 1975, it holds the audience. There was a surprisingly packed theater tonight and there was a smattering of appaluase at the end of the film. This is a good summer movie for the kids out there on their breaks, looking for some fun and hoping to be scared along the way. At the end of the summer, I’ll bet it outperforms some of the blockbusters that the studios have lined up. Once again, we will get some proof that people can be entertained without aliens, explosions or super heroes. All it takes is a shark in the water and some smart film makers to make it happen.