Saturday, June 25, 2016

"The Shallows"

 3 / 5 

The Shallows ain't Jaws, but the good news is, it's not Jaws the Revenge, either.  It may not be fair to try to compare The Shallows with any Jaws movie, but that's what happens when you make a movie about a shark.  Sorry, them's the breaks.

So, call it Jaws Lite: It comes nowhere near the mastery, the complexity, the fullness of Steven Spielberg's masterpiece, but it's far superior to any of the sequels, even the one with the shark who seeks revenge even though it died two films ago.

The shark in The Shallows is almost as tenacious as the one that terrorized Mrs. Brody and Michael Caine, who made that movie instead of getting his Oscar for Hannah and Her Sisters.  It is unlikely that Blake Lively, who stars in The Shallows, will need to clear her mantle for an Oscar, though if you measure the effectiveness of a performance by how much you believe the actor really is the person on screen, then she succeeds tremendously well.

She plays a surfer named Nancy (no, I didn't realize that parents were still naming their children Nancy in the early 1990s, either), who is on vacation in Mexico when she goes surfing by herself and gets attacked by a shark.

That is the setup, but the movie adds in some Lifetime Movie-level backstory about Nancy's mother dying of cancer and the way she loved this particular secret beach that can only be accessed by driving through miles of jungle.  Nancy spends a couple of minutes on the phone with her little sister and her widowed dad, who is disappointed that Nancy has dropped out of medical school.

Nancy makes her way out into the water and meets two other surfers, who lay out some additional rules that the movie has to follow, and in short order The Shallows gets all of the exposition out of the way so the shark can start its attack.

If Steven Spielberg had been born 30 years later, this is probably the kind of movie the studio would have forced him to make.  All that stuff in Jaws about Brody's fear of water, about the mayor and the townspeople, about Hooper and little Alex Kintner and Quint could have easily been truncated by about an hour so we could get straight into the stuff with the shark.  Why make audiences wade through story, for crying out loud?

So, here's Nancy on her surfboard, and the two other dudes say, "We're going home now," and she says, "Go on ahead, I'll stay here," even though it's clearly established she doesn't have a way to get back to her hotel.  And then it happens.

And The Shallows turns into a neat and effective little thriller that draws on another creepy movie about the ocean, Open Water, in the way it becomes about someone who's completely on her own with nothing but water and a shark.

The Shallows mixes it up a bit, by adding in other elements of danger, and some nicely just-out-of-reach potential fixes to Nancy's impossible situation, along with some additional roadblocks that leave her, and us, equally frightened and exasperated by the predicament.

It's a surprisingly restrained and well-crafted movie, mostly avoiding gore -- except for a scene that revels in Nancy's improvised self-suturing to try to close her gigantic wound -- and settling in to some terrific suspense, until a final third in which it succumbs to the same affliction that dragged down the Jaws sequels: It turns stupid.

After building impressive tension, The Shallows offers up a finale that belies everything this taut, smart thriller has been.  The CG visual effects that have been so sparingly and effectively used are suddenly exploited, and just when The Shallows should be most surprising and cathartic it turns, frankly, dumb. Director Jaume Collet-Serra and screenwriter Anthony Jaswinski can't resist an action-style ending, but it turns out they don't quite have enough in common with their shark -- they've bitten off more than they can chew.

They should have been content with the girl, the shark and the shore that's just a little too far away.

Viewed June 25, 2016 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


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