Thursday, 15 December 2016

Movie Review: The Shallows (2016)


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Were shark movies ever cool? I mean, outside of the original Jaws, they only seem to be getting sillier and sillier. Sure, it’s easy to say that now in the post-Sharknado age, but these films been like this for a long time. It’s the ultimate irony that a film that helped define Hollywood as it stands today would also go on to spawn easily one of the most B-movie of the notable B-movie sub-genres. From the laughable special effects to the hokey acting, right down to the (if you’ll excuse the term) jumping the shark moments like having them be driven by revenge or an exterior need to advertise for Sea World, leaping out of the water to take bites out of airplanes or even grouping together to form tornadoes to attack people, the sub-genre has a pretty prominent reputation for being hilariously ridiculous. Considering all this, making a film nowadays that is meant to make audiences take sharks seriously again is a pretty tall order. So, how does this particular feature turn out in that regard? This is The Shallows.


The plot: Nancy (Blake Lively), a medical student from America, has travelled to Mexico to find a secret local beach where her mother surfed back in her youth. Upon finding it, and getting to know some of the locals, she soon finds herself attacked by a great white shark and stranded on a rock surrounded by water. In danger of bleeding out, and in even greater danger of being killed by the predator, she has to find a way to either escape the water or possibly find someone else who can help rescue her before the tide forces her hand.

This is a film that focuses primarily on a single character within the narrative, with everyone else just serving as the distant supporting cast. However, since even the smaller roles are well-performed, it would be a bit unfair if I didn’t highlight them within the film. Óscar Jaenada as local Carlos is remarkably natural in his banter with Nancy, managing to sell a situation where sarcasm fails to be translated both in language and in tone that is possibly one of the most realistic exchanges I’ve seen in a film all year. Brett Cullen and Sedona Legge as Nancy’s father and sister respectively work as extensions and informers of the main character, adding a fair amount of dramatic weight to the events bookending the main event. Angelo José Lozano Corzo and José Manuel Trujillo Salas as two local surfers show that comfort with the area that fits with their familiarity with the area, without necessarily making that extension to the “we hate outsiders” mindset that certain films get to when it comes to showing the local population in more thrilling features. And Diego Espejel as a drunk man that Nancy tries to get to help her, but just ends up trying to rob her, honestly adds just a touch of black humour to the proceedings that manages to work tonally alongside the rest of the film. And then there’s Lively, who brings some serious intensity to the role and sells every bit of pain and fear that she’s put through.

So, this is meant to be a more serious shark movie. How does it accomplish this? Essentially, by going back to the basics and showing why sharks made people so scared to get back in the water in the first place. Rather than resorting to trying to humanize the animal with recognizable traits like a want for vengeance, or just multiplying its numbers to make it seem fantastically frightening, the single shark here is shown to be the apex predator that it is. What’s more, for as much of a threat as it poses, it isn’t even the only threat that Nancy faces. From the sharp coral lying at the bottom of the water to the jellyfish seen in formation later on in the film, even the tidal levels of the water itself, the ocean itself is shown to be an absolute hazard all on its own even without the immediate presence of the shark.

The way that the terror is realized, however, is a tad inconsistent. After an opening that ends up serving no real purpose being the first thing that we see going in, and a prologue complete with stylized FaceTime and Instagram screens popping out of the foreground, the film’s approach to showing the terror of the bulk of the film pretty much runs the gamut in terms of effects. It uses a real beach location (in Australia, admittedly) but apparently largely went with soundstage footage… not that you’d be able to tell that, necessarily. A lot of the stunt work and surfing scenes were done by Lively herself, shedding actual blood in the process… but then again, the way this film shows blood in the ocean can be a bit dubious; with the amount that gets shown in the water, you’d think that exsanguination was highly likely. The shark itself is largely composed of CGI, and unfortunately it’s current-shark-movie grade CGI… but the practicals done on how its attacks leave Nancy is incredibly graphic, getting the visceral pain across without it feeling overdone. I’ve talked about inconsistency in films before, but I’ve never seen it done as… well, consistently as it is here. As if to makes things even weirder, the resulting combination of all of these elements results in a head-scratchingly cohesive production; the disparate parts, for as jarring as they appear when taking piece-by-piece, all meld together to really help sell the main event of the film.

Much like last year’s Everest, this is mainly an experience film meant more to put the audience directly into the shoes of the character(s) in the moment, rather than be something to be dissected for its writing. For someone who obsesses over scripting as much as I do, you can imagine that this makes this film difficult to talk about. Don’t get me wrong, there are some threads put into place like Nancy’s relationship with her mother, but they end up taking a backseat to the very taut thrills of the main event. And honestly, there’s nothing wrong with that, especially when it’s portrayed in a manner such as this. As an attempt to make us feel what the main character feels, both physically and emotionally, it is very well-done and keeps us sunk in our seats with every salty wash over the fresh wounds on Nancy’s leg.

All in all, apparently when director Jaume Collet-Serra isn’t dealing with remakes or Neesonsploitation, the guy is more than capable of delivering real thrills. The acting is really damn good from the main character downwards, as even the supporting cast end up leaving their mark by film’s end, the effects work pulls from so many different approaches (with varying individual results) but manages to homogenize them all to help make the harrowing dilemma of the plot hit even harder, and Marco Beltrami’s potent soundtrack just furthers why he is as well regarded as a sound creator for horror films. I’m ranking this higher than Hell Or High Water, as the overall production here works in ways that seem defy logic; in comparison to a film that I just liked, it’s no contest. However, as much as I give credit to this film as a means of channelling terror, it’s not quite as hard-hitting as the coming-of-age story to end all coming-of-age stories with You’re Not Thinking Straight.

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