Friday, August 19, 2016

The Shallows (Jaume Collet-Sera)


It's the summer silly season so what can be sillier and more summery than a shark movie? The premise is clever enough--young woman goes to an isolated beach to surf, finds herself alone and stalked by large predator.

Anthony Jaswinski's script had two directions to go: small as in Steven Spielberg's Jaws (beach community slowly realizes they have a shark problem; three men on a boat go out and hunt said shark) or big as in Deep Blue Sea (not the gorgeous Terence Davies film but the silly Renny Harlin potboiler, complete with genetically enhanced sharks). Jaswinski goes microscopic, discarding all the Moby Dick metaphors to focus on a girl a seagull a rock and a shark--nothing more nothing less.

Well maybe a little more: we get Nancy (Blake Lively) in casual conversation with local resident Carlos (Oscar Jaenada) who was nice enough to give her a ride; we learn that Nancy is seeking a beach her mother visited long ago, where she realized she was pregnant with her daughter (when Nancy asks in turn the name of the beach, Carlos is coy with his answer: "it's paradise"). We get an information-heavy phone call to dad (Brett Cullen) filling in more backstory: apparently her mother had just passed away, and Nancy is reconsidering med school. Dad tries to talk her out of dropping out; she begs off instead, hanging up. 

So far so ho-hum. The movie finally takes off when Nancy finally takes to the water, and director Jaume Collet-Sera wows us with his depiction of surfing: the camera diving in and out of towering waves like a porpoise, demonstrating the slow-motion beauty of bodies (particularly Lively's body) suspended in water, intercut with breathtaking overhead shots of the entire bay in hallucinogenic colors--deep aquamarine, livid magenta, phosphorescent chartreuse dappled with foam. The picture's high point far as I'm concerned, staged shot and edited to make me want to rush out with a board and wipe out in the water. 

Then of course death crashes the party in the form of a humpback whale carcass. Clever way to account for the Great White cruising nearby (otherwise it's a bit of a puzzler why the shark--which habituates the waters of California, Northeast United States, South Africa and Australia--is hanging around a Mexican beach) but also raises a whole other question: why forego this tasty properly wet-aged all-you-can-eat buffet of rich blubber and tender meat for a bony surfer who would hardly make up a satisfying snack?

I know I know I know--it's a summer movie, not Ingmar Bergman; you're not supposed to use your brains while watching. That said I find myself asking pesky questions when I'm not distracted--suggesting that the onscreen action isn't engaging enough to distract me from a patently illogical story. 

And that I suppose is my biggest beef with this fish tale: it doesn't really engage you beyond the surface beauty of Mexican beach and wave (actually Lord Howe Island in New South Wales, Australia--which brings up the disturbing idea that one tropical beach paradise looks pretty much like any other). Blake Lively is buff, superbly up to the physical rigors of her role (sprint swimming, evasive diving, marathon clinging to both rock and decayed whale meat, excessive to the point of melanoma sunbathing) but no one has bothered to write her sufficiently entertaining patter to accompany the role. 

It would help; it would help enormously. The genre might be said to have started all the way back with Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea (that or Jack London's "To Build a Fire," or before that Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe). Hemingway was cunning enough to realize the company of a single human isn't enough, you need dialogue or talk of some kind; his eponymous elder talks incessantly and delivers all kinds of amusingly naive philosophical musings in carefully stilted English. Defoe has his protagonist tell the story epistle style, through diary entries, and eventually throws in a Man Friday for actual company). Spielberg's Jaws uses three men, two of which engage in a hilarious game of one-upsmanship (the inherently dramatic Robert Shaw, constantly mocked and undercut (with the encouragement of the director) by the nimbler Richard Dreyfus).

Lively alas is by herself; worse she's not much of a talker; worse still she's not very funny when she does talk. At one point a lame seagull lands on the rock she's clinging to and she starts calling it 'Steven'--for better or worse the comic high point of the picture. 

Collet-Sera sadly didn't enjoy the same big break Spielberg did--midway through the production of Jaws the shark (affectionately named Bruce) broke down. Deprived of his expensive robot toy Spielberg had no choice but to improvise, drawing on among other films Jack Arnold's The Creature From the Black Lagoon to suggest rather than show, allow his monster's presence to build in our minds before revealing all twenty-five feet and three tons of him in a high overhead shot. The shark in this production (unnamed far as I can tell and lacking Bruce's charm and charisma) pops up early, is obviously digital, and wouldn't scare a canned mackerel. As fish stories go this one smells at least a week old. 

First published in Businessworld 8.12.16


Cameron Grey Rose said...

"The picture's high point far as I'm concerned, staged shot and edited to make me want to rush out with a board and wipe out in the water. "

I will concede that I too want to learn how to surf after watching this film but I disagree with your overall conclusion.

Yes many parts of this film are well ridiculous and Wily E Coyote overall I thought it was beautiful and with an 85 min run time very entertaining.

There was a ticking clock, the stakes were clearly established, as was the geography. I confess I was concerned the bird might not make it!

It was just a lean film that overdelivered on its premises and made it so I left the cineplex feeling like my time and money weren't wasted.

No it was a change your life film or epic filmmaking but just a good entertaining summer movie.

Noel Vera said...

Fair nuff. Personally I'd prefer a less ludicrous ending--rip off her earring and stab him several times in the eyeballs, maybe, or toss him Steven and he chokes from food poisoning. I don't know of any culture that dare eat seagull.

Cameron Grey Rose said...

I don't disagree but maybe my standards are low this summer due to the massive garbage fire the rest of the summer has been (Batman V Superman left me shaking with rage). the ending was pretty ludicrous.

I used to work for Newscorp (aka Fox news) as a researcher and they had me look up a ton of stuff on sharks in the summer of 2008 so I know sharks don't act like this but I felt like it was entertaining enough that I gave it a pass.

Noel Vera said...

Garbage fire is too lively and interesting a description in my book; feels more like a newspaper-choked sewer drain.