Friday, June 24, 2016

Guest Post: The Shallows (2016)

Jaws Fought the Blake and The Blake Won

By Jonas Schwartz

The Shallows may not stand up to logic or anything resembling the natural order, but if one leaves their brains checked at the door, this adventure is quite thrilling. Blake Lively, who is a polarizing actress, turns in a believable performance as a medical student combating a monstrous shark dedicated to eating her alive.

Nancy (Lively) travels to a remote beach in Mexico where her late mother surfed 27 years earlier while pregnant with Nancy. Nancy has quit medical school and has lost her way after seeing her mother fight a losing battle to cancer.  She waxes her board and paddles out to the waves to cleanse her soul, but a shark that would make Bruce the Shark from Jaws feel incidental, attacks her with ferocity and won't let her go, even though he's been well fed and she has less meat on her than a squab. Bleeding from bitten limbs, Nancy isolates herself on a tiny rock and uses her medical skills to survive two days of trial by water.

Director Jaume Collet-Serra, who made the creepy Orphan and the Liam Neeson chase films Unknown and Non-Stop, is adept at turning a wide open space into a claustrophobic nightmare. The majority of the film takes place in bright daylight, but as Nancy's safe zone becomes smaller and more precarious, the camera and editing makes the audience feel like she's in a dark coffin.  Collet-Serra continuously reminds the audience of the time and how that time of day will affect the tides and visibility, which tightens the tension for Nancy's survival.

The film's star player is cinematographer Flavio Martínez Labiano. The underwater sequences are awe-striking. Every bubble, electric jellyfish and stinging coral is vividly portrayed on the screen. The overhead shots of the ocean reveal mystery just below the surface. The surf scenes, with its crashing waves and surfboard maneuvers, are as tantalizing as those in Bruce Brown seminal surf documentary, Endless Summer.

The shark effects are realistic enough to suspend disbelief and the attack scenes are both shocking and gory to please horror fans while still not crossing beyond the PG-13 territory.

The script by Anthony Jaswinski is serviceable. It was admirable when he revealed Nancy's motivations clearly through visuals, but then undersold that by reinforcing it with clunky exposition.  The plot points steal from Jaws, 127 Hours and even Cast Away with a seagull substituting for Wilson the Volleyball.

Never treating Nancy like a victim or a ditz puts the audience in her corner. She treats this surf mission as a zen reckoning, not just as a way to blow off the day with some waves. Her medical training comes in handy when she must use jewelry to protect her damaged body. Finally, nobody saves Nancy but Nancy. She always has control over her situation and knows she can only count on herself.

Lively lives up to her name with an unmannered performance. The whole film rests on her shoulders and requires the audience to care about her well-being. It's a testament to her that for 90 minutes, they do.  Her calm resolve when sewing up her leg, speaking to herself as if she were a patient in an ER, her devastated reaction when others are harmed, as well as her kindness to other characters, builds a protagonist for whom audiences can root.

Intense and visually striking, The Shallows is the perfect summer popcorn fare, fast and furious with a protagonist determined to survive at any cost.

Jonas Schwartz is a voting member of the Los Angeles Drama Critics, and the West Coast Critic for TheaterMania. Check out his “Jonas at the Movies” reviews at Maryland Nightlife.

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