If you’d told me at the beginning of 2016 I would actually enjoy watching The Shallows, I would have guessed you were certifiably insane. A movie about a shark attacking Gossip Girl star Blake Lively – what producer thought that concept could be anything but goofy? I watched the film for fun this past June the same night I saw Independence Day: Resurgence, and I ended up being completely caught off-guard. It was not nearly as terrible as I’d thought (sadly, Resurgence was worse than I ever could have imagined), and it was actually quite entertaining.
Now after watching the film again, I can confidently say it is the best film about a killer shark since the granddaddy of them all, Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. And yes, I am counting Sharknado 1-4 on that admittedly short list.
Re-watching this past weekend, I was amazed at just how well the film works. It clocks in at a hair over 80 minutes before the credits, wasting very little time. After the film’s baffling opening scene (which sadly spoils some of the fun coming later), it jumps headfirst into Lively’s character Nancy getting dropped off at an unnamed Mexican island and immediately preparing to go surfing. She is on her own, and we learn very few details about what brings her here. We are bombarded by foreshadowing of everything that’s coming, and then we are plunged into some terrifically captured surfing scenes.
For some inexplicable reason, director Jaume Collet-Serra decided to digitally stretch Lively’s face over her surfing double in these scenes. I assume he did this to camouflage the fact that Lively is not actually surfing, but I think he could have avoided any questions by just not showing any close-ups. But I digress, because all of the CGI effects in this film are rather cheaply done.
There are some random other surfers in these early scenes, but they leave so quickly that they do not really matter. Because shortly after another bit of character development for Nancy, she goes back out on the water – alone of course – stumbles on the decaying body of a dying whale, and is then attacked by a freaking great white shark. She survives, barely, and after suffering a few more injuries, Nancy ends up on a small rock formation with an injured seagull she nicknames Steven. Yes, as in Steven Seagull. It may sound like a corny joke, but it is making me laugh just writing about it.
I do not want to ruin the rest of the film from here, but Collet-Serra has composed a white knuckle thriller that consistently surprises in its creativity and its suspense. We genuinely want to see Nancy succeed after we see her go through absolute hell. We care about her plight because we have the precious few details about her life, her family and what lead to her deciding to surf on her own in this otherwise beautiful Mexican paradise. It is not something easy to do, but Collet-Serra pulls it off with style to spare. He even incorporates technology into the film in a surprisingly eloquent way that actually enhances what is happening on screen.
But the real reason The Shallows works is because Lively commits to everything thrown at her. She treats this film as her own personal version of The Revenant – with significantly less pretention, grunting and overly fancy camera tricks. She is convincing in every moment here, no matter how goofy, and as her injuries rack up (using some terrific makeup effects), her performance just continues to blossom. Watching Lively stitch and dress her leg wound using the small amount of material on her person is one of the most harrowing and brutal scenes of the year. But it never feels gratuitous or unrealistic. And as the film goes on, she just continues to carry it through her presence alone and the chemistry she shares with future Best Actor nominee, Steven Seagull.
If none of that convinces you to check the film out now that it’s hitting Blu-ray, perhaps the easier sell would be to tell you it’s an 80-minute movie with Blake Lively mainly dressed in a bikini. If that is not reason enough to watch it, then maybe you are more certifiably insane than I am.
Recommendation of the Week: Seven Samurai, the classic and highly influential Akira Kurosawa film from 1954. It was remade for the second time this past week into the decently bland Denzel Washington/Chris Pratt vehicle The Magnificent Seven (unless you count A Bug’s Life as a spiritual remake), but Kurosawa’s masterpiece still reigns supreme. Yes, it is in black and white, is subtitled and clocks in at nearly three and a half hours. But it has action, comedy, thrills, suspense and romance – but above all, it has friggin’ samurais fighting. There’s a reason this movie keeps getting remade, and a reason why Kurosawa was a master of action in Japan decades before anyone in the West took proper notice.