Thursday, June 23, 2016

Review: "The Shallows"

If you think "The Shallows" looks like an excuse to get Blake Lively in a bikini for 87 minutes and scare us with a CGI shark -- but not too scared; this is a PG-13-rated thriller, after all -- you'd be right. But not entirely.

Though at first this might seem like a rocks-in-its-skull-dumb movie, director Jaume Collet-Serra and screenwriter Anthony Jaswinski manage to whip up a decently entertaining flick. It's in the tradition of "you are there" filmmaking that's made something of a comeback in recent years with movies like "Gravity." The idea is to put the audience in the protagonist's shoes.

Well, not in this case, since she isn't wearing any... or much of anything, for that matter. 

Lively plays Nancy, a nice wholesome girl from Galveston, Texas, who's come to Mexico to seek out the same beach where her mother went surfing while pregnant with her in 1991. Eventually we learn that mom has recently died and Nancy dropped out of medical school as a result. She's a typical screen heroine: smart, braver than she thinks, wary, a little disconnected from others.

She finds the beach alright and soon enjoys a marvelous day of tube-cutting and cork-rolling, or whatever surfers call it. (People of my hue stay away from the beach, as a rule.) She shares the cove with a couple of local guys, including one using a helmet with a waterproof camera to record his exploits, which we know will become important later. 

Then Old Mr. Shark shows up, trapping Nancy on a shoal just a couple hundred yards from shore. She's left with a nasty bite on her leg, which she patches up using her doctor skills. Meanwhile, the deadly predator circles and feints, clearly not going anywhere until he's got himself some Texas-style sushi. She sits and frets, watching her foot slowly turn purple as thirst and exhaustion leech the life out of her.

The photography and editing are quite good (courtesy of Flavio Martínez Labiano and Joel Negron, respectively), giving us some dazzling views above and below the water, and some quick cuts to stoke our sense of peril.

The film's biggest flaw is telegraphing too much of what's going on inside Nancy's head, rather then letting us watch her and figure out what she's thinking. For instance, as the tide rises, threatening to send her perch back underwater, she gazes at a distant buoy and says out loud, "Too far." 

It's almost like the filmmakers didn't trust their actress to convey her internal struggle using just facial expressions. Think about the long wordless stretches of "Cast Away" with Tom Hanks, and how effective they were without any verbal support.

Speaking of which, Nancy gets her own "Wilson," the volleyball Hanks befriended. In this case it's a wounded seagull, who got his wing bent in the same shark attack that injured Nancy. The filmmakers use this device for a little while, then set it aside.

"The Shallows" doesn't stack up against "Jaws," but then how many movies do? It's a short, engrossing film with modest goals, which it accomplishes well. 


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