Thursday, January 5, 2017

Review: The Shallows (2016)

Blake Lively and Sully the seagull star in The Shallows

I finally got around to seeing The Shallows, which I mostly really enjoyed. The movie sometimes "jumps the shark" in a couple different senses. A few key events, shark behaviors, and moments of bad CGI stretch viewer credulity to the breaking point. Yet I had a fun time watching the movie and would -- will -- watch it again.

Blake Lively stars as surfer Nancy Adams, a Texan medical school dropout who goes to a remote, locals-only surfing beach in Mexico to make peace with her mother's recent death. Once there, she faces death herself when a huge, hungry great white shark attacks and terrorizes her. 

I appreciate The Shallows' well-executed homages to Jaws like the presence of the buoy and Nancy as the film's solo protagonist. Nancy's no-bullshit attitude and high degree of narrative agency makes The Shallows feel like a critical referendum on Jaws' brilliant yet rape-y opening sequence -- that is, The Shallows explores what it would be like if Jaws' Chrissie had been given a chance to fight back.

And sure, the Jaws buoy homage has been done before -- there are clanging buoys in Deep Blue Sea and Open Water -- but rarely as well. The Shallows makes its buoy a much more important screen element, distantly haunting the film's early scenes then serving as the third act's main set piece.

Nancy strikes back, astride her mighty buoy. Her use of the buoy to defeat the shark is surely a critique of Chrissie's fate in Jaws

That said, as I have similarly argued of Mad Max: Fury Road, The Shallows embraces the sexist cinematic convention of visually objectifying Nancy's body. Although she does not spend the entire running time clad in bikini only, Nancy's body is frequently put on display for the viewer's pleasure, in accordance with the pervasive Hollywood practice documented by feminist film scholar Laura Mulvey.*

The film's scenery is beautiful, and its central performances (by Lively and a seagull companion) are quite good. However, there is some over-use of slow motion in the first act. The slo-mo works well when the film shoots from a low angle at looming waves, suggesting imminent danger. But it grows tiresome during some of the surfing sequences, which would actually be more impressive if depicted in real time. As Peter DeBruge puts it in his generally negative review,
It’s a beautiful cove, and Collet-Serra and his camera crew (including surf d.p. Dwayne Fetch) lavish us with a gorgeous (if somewhat abstractly cut together) hang-10 montage featuring nice moves by Nancy and two unnamed Mexican surfers.**
Abstractly cut together indeed -- especially egregious is one shot which starts in slo-mo then suddenly switches to fast-motion mid-take. This feels needlessly corny and cheap-snowboarder-videoish to me, at odds with the suspense the film seems to want to build here. Nevertheless, despite its distractingly cheesedick surfing cinematography, The Shallows' "reality" remains fairly intact for its first half-hour. It breaks for me when Nancy does some home surgery on herself, stitching her extensive leg wounds together with a couple of earrings.    

This is PG-13?!

Then the film mostly gets back on track, though it deploys blatant ethnic stereotyping when a fat, drunk Mexican turns out to be unscrupulous and untrustworthy. Of course, this being a genre film with fairly well-established rules, the greedy, evil, corpulent Mexican swiftly meets a terribly gruesome death by shark attack. Voila!

The third-act underwater jellyfish sequence is brilliant, both in concept and in execution. It is the film's most visually interesting sequence. It may not be strictly realistic -- does a great white shark really have much sensitivity to jellyfish stings? -- but it feels close enough to plausible and it is a visually stunning and suspenseful scene.

I cannot say the same for a couple ridiculous things that happen near the film's climax. The Shallows obviously goes for a Jaws-like crescendo when the obviously CGI shark starts attacking the buoy, but given some of the grittier earlier aspects (e.g., the surgery, the quiet moments with the seagull), I think a more subdued ending a la The Reef would have better suited this film. I buy Nancy escaping from this surprisingly persistent shark, but killing it in the over-the top, action-heroine fashion in which she does? Not quite credible, though of course I applaud the intention.

I still don't understand how the fuck THIS happened. Spontaneous saltwater combustion?

I'm not sure the brief "One Year Later" epilogue is necessary either. Just end it with her and Steven exchanging looks as she lies on the beach -- we already know the rest.

All that said, The Shallows is an exciting, thoughtfully made thrill ride and it deserves a place of honor among shark attack films. It is way above such pleasurable dreck as Shark Lake and Sharktopus, yet doesn't quite reach the high benchmark set by The Reef. It sits below The Reef, somewhat near Open Water, in my shark movie rankings.

Sully the seagull sez: "Check out my Oscar-worthy performance in The Shallows -- I'm more believable than the shark!"

* See Mulvey's influential essay "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," originally published in Screen 16.3 (Autumn 1975) pp. 6-18.
** Much as I enjoy The Shallows, I cannot really defend it against DeBruge's critiques, and I especially agree with him that the film's score is clunky and weak. Debruge describes it as "the relatively suspense-less, all-digital stylings of composer Marco Beltrami, whose background music sounds like broken sonar equipment."

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