Thursday, June 30, 2016

On the Big Screen :: What Once Was Riveting Has Now Gone Completely Bonkers in Jaume Collet-Serra's The Shallows (2016)

Nancy Adams is a person in crisis. With the recent death of her mother after a long bout with cancer, the magnitude of this seismic event has left Nancy’s life in a state of upheaval. She has quit med-school halfway through her last year, is currently estranged from her father over this, and in an effort to work through the grieving process and come to terms with her loss, Nancy is on a pilgrimage to visit all the places her mother had surfed when she was younger, using a series of old snapshots as her topographical guide, hoping to reconnect with what once was and fill this new gaping hole. And here, our story picks up with Nancy finding the secluded beach in the wilds of Mexico where her mom first rode these waves after learning she was pregnant with her eldest daughter.

Now, some amazing cellphone reception helps us get that plot dump out of the way before Nancy (Lively) suits up and paddles out, where we find out she’s not as alone as she thinks. Two other surfers are already there shooting film on a mounted GoPro but, in a nice twist, they don’t harass her, offer her the layout on the rocks and coral to watch out for, and let her be. And after a full day of rejuvenating waves, as the sun sets and the other two head in, Nancy paddles out for one more ride; a decision she will soon come to regret.

Spotting something odd on the horizon, she paddles out further and discovers the strange outcropping aren't rocks at all but a whale carcass that has been partially devoured -- and by something pretty big, too, judging by the bite marks. Realizing what she’s stumbled upon, Nancy breaks for the shore but it's already too late as a ginormous great white shark abandons its meal and draws a bead on her...

In an interview with EmpireOnline, director Jaume Collet-Serra swears JAWS (1975) had no real influence on his film, The Shallows (2016) -- well, aside from a giant shark trying to eat people, ‘natch. The man behind the remake of House of Wax (2005) and Orphan (2009) said his was “more of a survival movie. Very simple, very economical. One character.” And added, “I wanted to make a summer movie. I have been doing thrillers that have been sort of complex and dark and light, mostly, and I just wanted a change of pace. It's almost like every time I've done a movie recently, it's always in the winter and in the snow. I've always said, ‘I hope my next movie can be in a tropical beach.’ Finally I found the movie that was in a tropical beach.” And find it he did with a script penned by Anthony Jaswinski, who also wrote the interesting sci-fi / horror hybrid, Vanishing on 7th Street (2010).

When I first saw the teaser trailer for The Shallows I thought it looked great and very harrowing, with a surfer, her leg tore open and bleeding, screaming for help, clinging desperately to small rock in the middle of the water while a large shadow circles around just beneath the waves. It was a wonderful image that really impends the dread on a primal level. But when I saw the full blown trailer I got angry, feeling it had given too much away in a “I guess she makes it to the buoy” sense. Still, I was intrigued enough to give it a go, and so I did. And in the end, glad I did, too.

See, after the shark attacks and lacerates her leg something fierce, Nancy manages to make it to that small outcropping after finding a temporary refuge on that whale carcass, where she will essentially be safe until the tide comes back in the following morning unless she bleeds to death first. Triaging her leg as best she can, all Nancy can do is wait out the night and hope for rescue from shore a mere two hundred yards away. (It might as well be two hundred miles.) Thankfully, she’s not completely alone on this ever-eroding rock. No, she shares it with a gull who was also injured during the shark’s initial rampage. (Lively gives a good performance and carries the whole movie well, but the bird kinda steals the show if I’m being honest.) And from there, well, the film holds no real surprises as it quickly falls to Nancy to save herself (and get her life back on track) when all other potential rescuers are chummed. And how does she manage this? Well, in a film that up to that point had been played fairly straight and serious and realistic -- well, a reasonable facsimile of realistic, it kinda goes off its meds and goes completely off the rails as we barrel toward the climactic showdown between surfer and shark.

Yeah, four days later and I am still trying to get my head around that ending of The Shallows, where the film seemed to have gotten a wild hair up its ass for a denouement that appears to have been inspired by a Chuck Jones’ Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote chase scene. I really don’t wanna spoil what happens after Nancy reaches the apparent safety of the buoy because it was that ah-mazing but equally flabbergasting -- though I will say it almost lost me completely when the shark went airborne. While it was on fire. I caught this at a matinee in a nearly empty theater. Behind me were a six-pack of girls between the ages of 13 and 15 and in front was a mom and her two boys, probably between nine and ten. They were all jumping and screaming when they were supposed to, laughing after, and cheering our heroine on. And it was great. It’s always fun to watch a movie with an appreciative, in-tune audience. But, man, the stunned silence when we reached the big payoff was deafening, broken up by a solitary, disbelieving raspberry. Yeah, that’s me raising my hand. That was me. And it wasn’t a derisive, screw-you snort, more of a wide-eyed “Are ya kidding?!"

Judging by the abrupt tonal shift of the last ten minutes, if I didn’t know any better, I’d swear that ending was a result of test-audience dickering or a studio-demanded punch-up but I don’t think so. At least I could find no evidence of such. But I fear that ending might ruin the movie for some. Then again, it might salvage it for others. Fair warning: that whackadoodle climax isn’t the film’s only problem either.

There’s some unreliable narrator issues as the camera angle switches around, screwing with perceived distances. Then, there’s a bit of bad-stereotyping during the overnight when a drunken local decides to rob our heroine instead of effecting a rescue, which eventually gets him eaten; and the only reason he’s there in the first place is to basically punch-up the shark’s kill count and that’s it. And high tide and low tide aside, sometimes the film can’t quite decide on just how deep the water is from shot to shot, which tends to add to the impossibility of a shark that big doing what it does. (And I kinda wanted to punch the cloying epilogue right in the face.) On the plus side, there’s Lively’s performance, Steven Seagull’s performance, decent F/X, and I enjoyed how Collet-Serra solved the problem of letting the audience in on the character’s use of social media onscreen; and his use of low angles or keeping the camera shooting up from underneath the water to play on the vulnerability of no longer being on top of the food chain was top notch -- though he also seems to be obsessed with showing off his lead actress' rear-end during the surfing scenes.

Perhaps it might’ve been better served with an ending where our heroine simply gets away using her wits instead of going all Bruckheimer and Bay with a Looney Tunes twist. (The movie even kinda sets this up a bit with a discarded hook.) Maybe. Meh. Tallying it all up I can say that I enjoyed The Shallows quite a bit and I think it ultimately achieved its goals as a throwaway piece of summer escapism. Hell, I might even go see it again. The ending went nuts, yes, but it wasn’t terrible by any stretch -- I cannot stress that enough; it just went completely bonkers. Until then, I know I was pretty riveted through the whole thing and I think you might be, too -- just be sure to brace yourself for that ending.

The Shallows (2016) Ombra Films :: Weimaraner Republic Pictures :: Columbia Pictures / EP: Douglas C. Merrifield / P: Lynn Harris, Matti Leshem / D: Jaume Collet-Serra / W: Anthony Jaswinski / C: Flavio Martínez Labiano / E: Joel Negron / M: Marco Beltrami / S: Blake Lively, Óscar Jaenada, Brett Cullen, Sedona Legge

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