MOVIE REVIEW: THE SHALLOWS
June 30, 2016
It's been a long time since audiences have had a "killer" shark movie to bite into. Sure, we've all been swept up into the "Sharknado" frenzy of the past few years (with July 31, 2016 already circled in blood red on the calendar for "Sharknado 4"), but that speaks to our feral bloodlust and love of over-the-top implausible disaster scenarios, as do so many of the "Sharktopus", "Shark Attack", "Megashark" "Super Shark" and "Ghost Shark" entries in the genre. (Yes, shark movies are their own genre or sub-genre.) But since 1975's seminal sharkbuster "Jaws", good quality shark movies have been few and far between but for a few exceptions such as "Open Water" and "Deep Blue Sea". Not wanting to be left out of the bloody waters of the genre, summer 2016 brings us two shark movies, the first being THE SHALLOWS, and the second "In the Deep".
Already having seen an early version of "In the Deep" and admittedly excited for its August release, since seeing a first trailer I have been impatiently gnashing my teeth awaiting this weekend's THE SHALLOWS - a woman stranded, on a rock, in the middle of the ocean, tide rising, and shark circling. These few brief images gave anticipatory hope that a bloody nail-biting tension-ridden thriller akin to "Jaws" was on the horizon. Unfortunately, such has proven not to be the case. Although beautifully lensed in the pristine waters off Queensland, Australia and with a story concept from scribe Anthony Jaswinski that has the potential to propel THE SHALLOWS to legacy status, director Jaume Collet-Serra misses the boat, delivering a film that while enjoyable enough as summer fare, in the long run may find itself as shark bait.
A bit blustery and somewhat grey with sky and sea seeming almost as one, our first images are of a young boy kicking a soccer ball on a deserted beach when something in the water catches his eye. A helmet with a GoPro. Quickly fishing this treasure from the sea, he immediately takes the GoPro out of its helmet case and starts watching the video. We watch with him as two guys are surfing on white crested waves under a bright blue sky with sparkling sun. But then the boy's face pales and terror fills his eyes as he watches the video and he takes off running, forgetting all about his soccer ball. What did he see?
We now meet Nancy as she is obsessing with her smartphone instead of appreciating the beauty of a tree laden jungle while being driven to a secret beach by a local named Carlos kind enough to give her a ride. As she quickly learns, the beach is so secret that despite her best efforts, no one, including Carlos, will divulge the beach's name or location. The only reason Nancy knows of it is because her mother surfed there years ago while pregnant with Nancy. Sadly, mom is now gone, having lost a battle with cancer, and Nancy is making this trek as a means to emotionally connect with her mother and maybe even come to terms with her mother's death, be it by surfing the same waves or just staring at the same horizon.
As Carlos' truck emerges from the leafy green, Nancy (and the audience) is met with what can only be described as heaven on earth. Sparkling blue ocean with white sands and gently rolling waves. Breathtaking and serene. With words of warning to be careful, Carlos takes his leave as Nancy readies herself to hit the waves. Calling her little sister Chloe back in Texas before setting forth, we learn Nancy was a med school student, but dropped out, much to the dismay of her father, who takes the phone and has some stern words for his wayward daughter. The tension is palpable, but so is the pain each feels over the loss of Nancy's mother. Abruptly ending the call, Nancy turns her attention to the water and spies two other lone surfers out on the waves and heads on out to join them, but at a safe distance. After all, a girl can't be too careful when she's alone in a foreign country, on a beach (with no name), out on the waves, and no one else in sight. The boys (who the audience will recognize as the ones in the video) kindly yell out the lay of the land for her - low tide exposes a rock that looks like a small island, so avoid "that" area over there, be careful of the bottom because there is fire coral peppered throughout which feels like the burning sting of a jellyfish if you touch it, and there's a heavy riptide to avoid in one area.
Finally catching some waves, Nancy is in heaven. She couldn't ask for a more perfect day. As the boys call it a day and take leave while Nancy dangles on her board about 100 yards from shore, curious about a big object floating about another 100 yards out which is attracting flocks of seagulls, she starts paddling out, as we are treated to some beautiful aerial shots that establish the isolation and desolation of the waters, the beaches and Nancy. But then the serenity and happiness of the day vanish with one big thud from under the water flipping Nancy and her board up and over. Shark!
And that one moment sets the tone for the rest of the film and the terror and chaos that ensue as Nancy is literally caught between a rock and a hard place as she struggles to survive. First seeking salvation on the bloated dead whale floating in the ocean only to have the shark flip the whale and Nancy, she is forced to make haste to the now revealed island rock. Having been severely bitten by the shark, blood stains the water as it pours from her leg, leaving a tasty trail for the shark to pursue her. Once on the rock, however, her medical training kicks in and she talks herself through panic while trying to figure out how to stop her leg from hemorrhaging and formulate a game plan to get off the rock and back to the shore. Along the way, she befriends a small seagull whom she names "Steven Seagull", who has been injured by the shark and also taken refuge on the rock with Nancy (and which appears to metaphorically represent Nancy's mother watching over her while giving Nancy "someone" to talk to over the course of 20+ hours). And of course, we see the requisite cinematic opportunities for salvation only to result in mayhem and blood shed, forcing Nancy to take some risks if she is ever going to survive.
As Nancy, given she is in virtually every frame, Blake Lively must carry the weight of the film on her shoulders. While pleasant enough to watch, she is unfortunately not up to the task of hitting the necessary emotional beats to support that weight. Distress feels forced. Fear is never palpable and screaming or wild-eyed head thrashing doesn't carry the necessary gravitas of the situation. I'm unsure if the emotional shortcomings are due to working with green screen or just exceed Lively's limitations for the character, but it is distracting. Also distracting is the constant repetition and utterance of one of the most mocked phrases in film history - "Come back! Come back!" Once famously uttered by Kate Winslet in "Titanic" as a frozen Rose mustered the energy to call a lifeboat back to her, I lost count of the number of times Lively's Nancy tries to call out with the same hoarse rasp to potential saviors, and a boat. Lively, however, is at her most engaging in the first act of the film as we learn about Nancy and experience with her, the wonders of this hidden cove for the first time. And yes, she charms when engaging with Steven Seagull.
Spanish actor Oscar Jaeneda is superb as Carlos, albeit with minimal screen time. Affable, likeable and a nice piece of eye candy for the ladies to counter Lively for the men. Brett Cullen is solid as Nancy's father. But I must say, "Steven Seagull" had me - one petrified of birds - rooting for him from beginning to end.
And kudos to Lively's surfer double, 18-year old World Junior Surfing Champion Isabella Nichols who is pure grace on water riding the waves. Unfortunately the facial VFX placing Lively's face over Nichols for close-ups pales in comparison to Nichols' excellence.
Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra from script by Anthony Jaswinski, as mentioned above, the concept and story have amazing potential. Think "Cast Away" meets "Open Water" meets a touch of "Titanic". Unfortunately, somewhere between the idea and landing in Collet-Serra's hands, something was lost in translation (and Blake Lively is no Tom Hanks). Disconnecting and distracting are over-sized text message boxes and Skype phone images. While I understand that Collet-Serra was trying to distract the audience from the beauty of nature just as Nancy was distracting herself from it, over-sized images only equate to over-kill here. Want to incorporate images reflective of technological experiences of today? Take a look at some of Timur Bekmambetov's works, particularly his 2014 produced venture, "Unfriended."
The script leads us by the hand with every set-up and situation Nancy is going to encounter. The fire coral, jellyfish, the rock, high tide and low tide, rip current, no beach name, no people. There is such attention paid to these few moments of human connection and dialogue (which is even repeated, thus ingraining even deeper for the audience, its importance ) it is impossible to ignore as being tips of what's to come. Similarly, Collet-Serra spends excessive amounts of time on images of specific things that play a large part in the progression of the film - the rock, the whale, a buoy, the seagull, the camera, broken surfboards, coral. The audience is being fed like cattle to a slaughter thus removing much of what could have been tension riddled moments.
However, all is not lost thanks to Collet-Serra's frequent cinematographer Flavio Martínez Labiano. Labiano is an interesting and surprising choice for THE SHALLOWS given his body of work and the darker, denatured palettes for which he is typically known. Here, Labiano soars with vibrancy and beauty, excelling with Peter Beeh's aerial shots that showcase the clarity of the water all the way down to the ocean floor. Breathtaking. Use of the sun and its reflection and backlighting is exemplary, all of which is then followed through underwater, the photography of which is equally glorious. And then Labiano hits us with the greyer notes and tones once disaster strikes, creating shades and shadows that obfuscate the beauty that now lies beneath. But one must ask, what was the purpose of close-up breast and butt shots of Lively's Nancy while she was disrobing and revealing her bikini underneath? Sharks don't care about one's physical appearance. Comes across as a gratuitous T&A move.
Sound design is more than adequate, particularly during the initial shark attack on Nancy and does more for ratcheting up the fear factor than anything else. . .until we see the shark itself, which is an all too infrequent occurrence. The shark is wonderfully rendered from the look and physical structure, to the teeth, to its movement, although Collet-Serra misses the mark by not executing a "shark's-eye view" within the film. Some of the mishaps involving the shark disappointingly fall victim to disbelief and implausibility.
Surprising is Joel Negron's editing which is not up to par with his usual deftness in establishing pace and emotional beats. Too frequent are early cuts that minimize the wonder and amazement of Nancy's emotions on seeing the ocean and beach so loved by her mother, and a sight so glorious to see on a first view. A missed opportunity to be sure. Lingering shots seem reserved for objects and things as opposed to reaction and emotional establishment. However, in shark-involved action sequences or surfing sequences and, in particular, a climactic scene involving the buoy, editing is spot on, never missing a beat, and just fueling the adrenaline rush.
Marco Beltrami's score is serviceable but never fits the events or emotions at hand.
A bit too shallow in the grand scheme of filmmaking and the shark genre, THE SHALLOWS is nevertheless fun popcorn fare for the summer that looks beautiful from location to Blake Lively to the shark itself, gets good and bloody and may even have you tempting fate in the warm shallow waters of your own sandy shores.
Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra
Written by Anthony Jaswinski
Cast: Blake Lively, Oscar Jaeneda, Brett Cullen