JUNE 24, 2016
Considering how much I love Orphan (and really like House of Wax), I was starting to get nervous that Jaume Collet-Serra might have left the horror forever in favor of Liam Neeson(s); a would-be master of horror who didn't seem interested in cementing his status or even adding to the defense for it. Orphan was seven years ago, and since then he's made three action films (and a fourth is on the way) with bigger budgets and (usually) higher box office returns - why would he come back? Well, maybe he just needed a killer idea, which he got with The Shallows, in which a woman is stuck on a rock with a hungry shark endlessly circling her, waiting to make its move. That's pretty much it - it's a home invasion movie where the home is a small (and not stable) bit of the ocean, and instead of a guy in a mask we get a hungry Great White.
Luckily, Collet-Serra knows precisely how to pace the movie, never letting it get boring but also not jumping the gun and straining credibility too early either. The movie is barely over 80 minutes with credits, and he makes them all count, giving us just enough character development time before heroine Blake Lively grabs her surfboard and heads into the water. A quick lunch break offers a little more backstory (and allows for a Facetime cameo from Brett Cullen, playing her dad - a Lost vet safely at home is a cute casting choice, if it was intentional), but then she goes back in and gets in trouble right around the 20 minute mark, giving us nearly an hour of woman vs. shark action. She utilizes three "locations" to stay safe, each with their own major setbacks - the first is a dead whale that the shark doesn't plan on leaving intact for long, the next is a rock that will be submerged once the tide comes in, and the third is a buoy that the shark can easily tip over if he gives it a big enough headbutt.
I don't think I'm spoiling anything to lay all of that out - the trailer does that anyway. At first I was annoyed that the trailer shows her making it to the buoy after setting it up as a sort of main goal (akin to showing Tom Hanks leaving the island on the Cast Away promos), but it's clear that Collet-Serra (I'm going with just Serra from now on, that OK?) knows staying too long in any one spot will kill the movie's pace and also have us start picking apart the logic, so he keeps her moving and thus even if you haven't seen the trailer you'd know she got to here or there. She's the only main human character - we know that if she's going to die at all that it won't be until the runtime has nearly expired, so the trick is to keep giving her new injuries and obstacles to deal with (and that said injuries will keep her from Open Water-like water treading, as she'd be dead instantly with the blood loss). Like, sure, she gets to the rock before being eaten, but NOT before she scrapes her foot up on the coral - the fun doesn't come with seeing whether or not she'll survive, but how she'll managed to get out of her latest predicament. I should note that the trailer does wreck some of the fun by showing a moment that probably should have happened earlier in the movie than it does, because it involves a character who leaves fairly early on and thus we know he'll come back later - it would have worked a bit better for her to be isolated for good earlier on, I think.
But as a whole it still works better than it has any right to, though we can't chalk the success up just to Serra and/or Lively (who I never liked much, but acquits herself nicely here) - they are assisted greatly by Steven Seagull, Lively's closest thing to a major co-star. He's one of the many gulls flying around and pecking at the whale carcass, and gets a broken wing during one hectic scene, grounding him on the rock with her for the bulk of her time there. I can't recall ever seeing a seagull "act" before, but if I have that one wasn't nearly as good as Steven (yes, that's how he's credited), who gets closeups and everything. With Lively's survival not in question anytime soon, he provides the bulk of the movie with its "Will they make it out?" suspense, and damned if I didn't tense up every time it seemed he might be served up as bait or just to give the movie a horror jolt whenever it had been a while since the last one. I wouldn't dare reveal his fate here, but suffice to say his time onscreen, and "chemistry" with Lively, more than made up for the movie's paper-thin narrative and eventually ridiculous spectacle.
On that note, I should stress that for the most part this is more like Jaws than any of its sequels, but near the end - particularly when she's in the buoy, which functions not unlike Hooper's shark cage - I started wondering if the thing had a personal vendetta against her, a la Jaws 4. I know we need a big finale, but when it starts chewing through metal to get at her after it had eaten three people in less than 24 hours (plus whatever it got out of that poor whale), it starts coming off more like Jason Voorhees than a regular ol' shark. For his part, Serra dives headfirst into the silliness, with a money shot I am so happy the trailer didn't spoil (as I was with an earlier one that gave the movie its best jolt), but if you were enjoying the more grounded aspect of the film, you might want to duck out as soon as she leaves the rock and make up your own ending.
(Speaking of ducking out, a guy went to the bathroom and missed the climax, even though it was obviously time for one or both of them to meet their maker - you couldn't hold it for another minute, guy?)
As he did in Non-Stop, Serra spices up his single location imagery with graphic overlays, like a 32 second countdown that times out how long she can jump into the water to retrieve something before the shark can swim back to her, Facetime calls, and pictures of her mother, whose memory she is honoring by traveling to this remote beach (as she went to it when she was pregnant with her). But unlike that film, which was in a sterile, boring environment, he really didn't need the assist - the film is GORGEOUS, and no not because it stars a beautiful woman. He gives us these great (way) overhead shots of the crystal clear water and its various rock/plant formations under the surface, big widescreen vistas showing how far she is from this or that safe spot, etc. - I can't recall the last horror/thriller that looked this lovely. Even the horror stuff has its own sort of beauty, like when she is first attacked and the water turns crimson red around her - Argento will be proud, if he sees it. Such shots more than make up for the film's sometimes lacking CGI - there's a pretty terrible shot of a victim who has been cut in half where the bloodstain on the bottom of his torso seems to be floating around the screen, and the facial replacement for Lively on her surfing shots will have you yearning for the relative perfection of the CGI Myers in H20. With such a minimal cast and lack of location changes, roughly half of the film's credits are for VFX folk, so I'm not sure who is to blame for the bad shots, though at least the ones of the shark all look good to great. Still, its such a technical and aesthetic marvel 98% of the time, it makes those blunders really stand out as laughable.
Ultimately, the singular nature of the film means it won't be one I revisit often, if ever, but that's fine - it's just great to have another Jaume Collet-Serra horror movie again. I think it's a must-see on the big screen to appreciate the scenery and the major shark scenes, however, and certainly a better use of your summer moviegoing dollars than Independence Day 2, which feels like everyone involved is just doing it out of obligation (even Goldblum seems bored more often than not, and Emmerich couldn't even be bothered to destroy anything you didn't already see get blown up/knocked over in the trailer). Those who wanted more alien action in the first one will be satisfied, I think (we see them a LOT this time around) but otherwise if you want big silly fun at the movies this weekend, this is the movie that will provide it - along with some genuinely good editing and craft. And it's been a long time since there was a "serious" (by comparison) shark movie after all the Syfy/Asylum stuff, so it's worth seeing just for the sheer fact that it's daring enough to lend itself to more Jaws comparisons than Sharknado ones. And it pays off - I think Spielberg would have fun watching it without feeling like he should sue someone.
What say you?