Friday, June 24, 2016


Opening this weekend:

The ShallowsFew would argue that Jaws—which, it was recently pointed out to me, turns 41 this month—is the greatest shark movie ever made. But one could probably go farther—it may be the only really good shark movie ever made. Its official sequels ranged from weak to laughable, none of its many rip-offs were classics, Deep Blue Sea had the one great scene with Samuel L. Jackson but little else to recommend it, and the Sharknado movies were terrible on purpose.

Now comes The Shallows, sort of a feature-length version of the opening scene of Jaws, if the young woman had been able to fight back. Blake Lively plays Nancy, a lapsed American med student who, as a memorial to her late mother, goes surfing at a secluded beach in Mexico (though the film was actually shot in Australia).

She stays in the water a hair too long, and finds herself alone, injured and trapped on a rock, under siege from a particularly persistent great white shark. Her medical skills come into play, gruelingly, in treating her own injuries, but high tide will submerge her rock, so before long she’ll have to try to make it either to shore or to the buoy nearby.

That’s pretty much the movie, and for most of its length it’s pretty gripping. Director Jaume Collet-Serra and screenwriter Anthony Jaswinski handle the initial buildup deliciously, and manage some clever gimmicks to create the illusion that the story, with its static basic situation, is moving forward.

Best of all, Blake Lively is up to the task of carrying the picture herself. Lively’s supporting role in Ben Affleck’s The Town demonstrated she could act, but here she’s the whole show. She and Oscar Jaenada, as a local guy who gives her a ride, get a nice rapport going in a brief scene near the beginning, but on the whole the rest of the cast are bit players. Much of Lively’s footage here consists of her screaming in terror or groaning in pain, but this doesn’t become tedious, and she finds ways, through the glimpses of personality she’s permitted to offer, to make a portrait of a likable, admirable, believable young woman emerge.

Structurally, The Shallows is almost identical to 2013’s Gravity: A showcase role of a bereaved woman struggling to survive after a disaster. And it has exactly the same key flaw—after a mostly convincing first two-thirds, it lets itself slide into cornball action melodrama in its homestretch. We’re led to believe that Nancy will find some ingenious way to outsmart her fishy foe, but the final clash is like something out of a Schwarzenegger movie. It’s still reasonably entertaining, but a bit of a letdown after such a strong start.

Even if this weren’t the case, though, The Shallows would still fall far short of Jaws for another reason—the shark doesn’t look real. The shark effects here are well above average for the CGI era, but they still have that unmistakable whiff of insubstantial ghostliness, compared to the hardcore presence of the robot shark in Jaws.

Thus the shark in The Shallows never really becomes a character, but formidable as Lively is, she does get upstaged: An injured seagull, marooned on the same rock, keeps regarding Nancy with an unimpressed scowl and an occasional cranky screech. This very real bird is a fine performer, and his vivid individuality demonstrates the limits of CGI.

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