The Shallows

Film Review |By Christian Tesfaye - special to Fortune

A pretty girl, a soul searching journey, surf, an island and... a man eating shark. Yes, we have been here before. Blake Lively plays the all-American sweetheart, who spends the vast majority of the film on a small coral island trying to avoid being eaten. Sounds dull doesn't it? Well, actually, despite the fact that it probably won't be up for many awards, the director, James Collet-Serra, and Lively herself do make it not too bad of a watch - 5 out of 10.

Movies, ever since their inception, have been notorious for distorting reality. They give us half-truths, so as to appeal to our melodramatic nature. For instance, French kissing is much sloppier, and nowhere near that sexy, in real life. Gunshot wounds and car crashes are fatal and rarely do they result in only temporary damage. And sharks don’t attack human beings quite so much, or as vigorously, as they do in the movies. It has been confirmed, time and time again, that anyone of us is less likely to be attacked by a shark than to choke on our dinner. It is a fact that sharks demonstrate what is known as a feeding frenzy, but not upon human beings. When sharks attack a human, they do so accidentally, confusing the human for a sea mammal.

This doesn’t mean I want Hollywood to make movies where the shark acts realistically. One of the most exciting movie moments is where an almost naked girl gets brutally devoured by a shark in slow motion. Steven Spielberg, when he made Jaws, knew this. He presented the shark in the movie as a smart, ruthless creature that would go to great lengths to kill a human, not for food, but for fun. Of course, Jaws was a beautifully made movie that makes great use of underwater cinematography, rugged characters and an expressive film score. Later shark attack movies, though, were motivated by a male audience’s desire to see the female body soaked in water. I can’t say I disapprove either way.

Shark attack movies are rare these days. Most horror movies are geared towards ghosts or demons instead of non-fictional monsters. We have movies like Paranormal Activity and The Blair Witch Project to thank, or scold, for this. They are a couple of the most popular horror movies made over the last two decades. And Hollywood executives aren’t art aficionados, who are constantly looking for new ways to surprise and challenge their audiences, but gluttonous Wall Street nuts whose only purpose is to milk every single profitable movie they can get their hands on. This is why The Shallows was made for a measly 17 million dollars, which Sony Pictures reluctantly whipped out.

The Shallows stars Blake Lively as the unlucky Nancy. She is an American on a trip to Mexico, looking to have a memorable time. She is, in both mind and body, perfect – beautiful face, great figure, upper middle class status, a lovable attitude and an intelligent enough mind to get her into med school. She is so enviable we want to see her eaten right away. But the filmmakers add one more detail; she is in grief, she has recently lost her mother.

Nancy goes to a beach she and her mother once frequented so as to find closure. She is searching for an epiphany, and the beach, with its beautiful weather and fantastic waves, is perfect for her spiritual needs. She engages in some nicely choreographed surfing numbers, where she showcases her fantastic surfboarding skills and tanned skin, before the score gets darker (like an omen) and she gets attacked by a shark. She doesn’t die, but escapes on to a gigantic dead whale and, after the shark head butts the whale’s body to force her to disembark, makes it to a small reef that lies far away from any shore. Isolated, frightened and nursing a leg wound, Nancy tries to survive.

Like every other film produced by Sony, every character uses a Sony Smartphone. The first dozen minutes of The Shallow are dedicated to introducing the Sony Xperia Z5. This reminds me of movies in the 1950’s, where, despite by that time a TV being a household item, the interior of a house is shown entirely bereft of one. Filmmakers did this because they believed it was tasteless to show a TV on a movie. Smartphones should be treated in the same manner.

The Shallows doesn’t bear the usual hallmarks of a horror movie. In plot and theme, instead of as in run of the mill horror movies where a number of promiscuous teens die hysterically gruesome deaths, the film has more in common with a thriller like last year’s The Revenant. Nonetheless, the protagonist, Nancy, is a horror movie cliché for the simple fact that she is a young and attractive female hero pitted against a barbaric monster. The annoying and repetitive plot in horror movies is that the most desirable, and least provocative, girl always outsmarts the monster, when in fact it has been statistically proven that intelligence rarely strikes those that look like Beyonce.

The fact that it is Blake Lively that takes on the shark is obvious; all those charges of sexism in Hollywood aren’t entirely unjustified. To think that someone not as shapely as Lively could carry a movie like The Shallows, where the protagonist shows a lot of skin, is unthinkable. There aren’t many celebrities that aren’t eye-popping to begin with. The first step to being famous is being attractive, so there is only one A-list actor I could think of – Melissa McCarthy.

While Lively can make a comedy, suspense, action, drama, romance, McCarthy, the more talented actor, is stuck to just one genre (comedy). The film industry doesn’t believe an overweight girl could sell a ticket in a movie where the audience isn’t expected to snigger (at or with her), but admire her femininity in a serious role. And this distinction isn’t exclusive to just movies, but also TV shows, stage plays and Facebook pages.

For such an inexpensive movie, the shark in The Shallows is pretty convincing. It is the right amount of scary (as opposed to cartoonish) as any shark that is about to devour a human being could be. And this was what the director James Collet-Serra, who is a better engineer than a filmmaker – aside from making the protagonist lovable – concentrated on.

I will give credit where credit is due though, and say that the film is not boring. The Shallows is a minimalist movie – there are very few people and locations. Every other character, aside from Nancy, has so little screen time that they might as well be extras. And most of the film takes place on a small exposed reef that barely spans a couple of yards. Reasonably, the film should have been unwatchable, but Collet-Serra, his star and his flashy cinematographer find the right touch to give us a far more entertaining movie than last week’s superhero crowded Suicide Squad.

Published on Aug 23,2016 [ Vol 17 ,No 851]



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