The Shallows

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The shark may well be the ultimate screen villain.

Deadly. Relentless. Without mercy. A killing machine with no pity, remorse, or shame. As someone said in the most famous shark movie of them all, “What we are dealing with here is a perfect engine, an eating machine. It’s really a miracle of evolution. All this machine does is swim and eat and make little sharks.”

And when it kills–whoa!—it kills in spectacular fashion.

In time, The Shallows—the new thriller from Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra—will be remembered, if at all, as just another shark movie. But in the moment, The Shallows is a taught, suspenseful survival tale that pits a game Blake Lively against Mother Nature’s perfect engine.

Lively’s grief-stricken surfer girl, Nancy, has lost her mother to cancer, left medical school, and retreated to a secluded Mexican beach to forget her troubles and ride the spectacular southern swells. Had she headed back to town after lunch, it truly would have been the perfect day. But, alas, she stays out a bit longer than she should, and before you can say “girl in peril”, she finds herself laying on an isolated rock two hundred yards from shore, blood gushing from a savage shark bite in her leg, and the rising tide threatening to wash her off of her safe place and into the jaws (no pun intended) of the great white shark lurking in the dark water. Facing near-impossible odds, the determined and resourceful Nancy rediscovers her lost will to live and sets about trying to find a way to get herself to safety before it’s too late.

Like many shark movies that take themselves seriously (no, I’m not talking to you, Sharknado), The Shallows must be judged against Spielberg’s 1975 masterpiece. That said, is it fair to say that The Shallows is better than one or more movies that has Jaws in its title followed by a number? Yes, absolutely. Does it even come close to the original Jaws? No way.

Then again, what does?

Jaws remains one of the most ground-breaking films of any genre in the history of film. Ranked number 48 on the American Film Institute’s roster of the 100 Greatest American Movies of All Time, Jaws is not only an outstanding film on the merits, but it also single-handedly created the idea of the summer blockbuster. For all the amazing things about Jaws, however—the phenomenal performances, the terrific writing, the rich characters—what is often lost about this timeless classic is just how good a horror film it really is. Jaws actually scares you. And it doesn’t just scare you in the moment: it lingers with you, it haunts you, and it plays with your mind whenever you dip your toe into the deep blue sea. It is not hype to say that an entire generation of moviegoers learned to be afraid of the water from Jaws.

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On its own terms, The Shallows provides its fair share of scares, as well, though its killer shark occasionally seems to be a bit too obsessed with  Nancy when, as the saying goes, there are plenty of other fish (and mammals, for that matter) in the sea. The great white of The Shallows seems to have been inspired by the masked killers of the 80’s slasher cycle in its single-minded drive to kill this one specific victim, but considering the tasty way in which the film presents Blake Lively, perhaps it’s hard to blame the precocious fish.

Especially in the film’s early scenes, director Collet-Serra leers at Lively. His gaze lingers on her every curve, from front to back, like a creepy neighbor in an upstairs window with a pair of binoculars.  He cuts from the magnificence of the secluded beach to the gorgeous tree line to Lively peeling off her clothes like she’s just another part of the scenery.

Lively, though, rises above it and proves to be much more than a pretty face. As the movie’s sole actor for probably 90% of its running time, Lively anchors the film effectively and does well to create a real character out of what essentially is a one-line scenario:  What would happen if a girl got caught alone on a rock in the middle of nowhere and had to match wills against a great white shark? There isn’t much room there for character development, but Lively does her level best.

In the end, though, The Shallows has little to do with character, plot, story, or any other element of traditional narrative. It’s about tension, suspense, and a massive, angry, lunging shark. In retrospect, that’s probably not enough. But in the dark of the theater, it makes for good, engaging summer entertainment.

31 Films of Halloween – 10/4/15: Jaws

Each day during October, Madison Film Guy will post a new mini-review/recommendation/musing on a contemporary or classic horror film to help celebrate my 31 favorite days of the year: the countdown to Halloween! Today’s film: Jaws.

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Jaws, 1975

It is hard to believe that Steven Spielberg’s Jaws turned 40 years old this year. Four decades after its initial release and three sequels later—you would have guessed more than that, right?—Jaws remains one of the most ground-breaking films of any genre of all time.

Ranked number 48 on the American Film Institute’s roster of the 100 Greatest American Movies of All Time, Jaws is not only an outstanding film on the merits, but it also single-handedly created the idea of the summer blockbuster, which had never before existed until Spielberg’s masterpiece came along. For all the amazing things about Jaws, however—the phenomenal performances, the terrific writing, and on and on—what is often lost about this timeless classic is just how good a horror film it really is.

Jaws actually scares you. And it doesn’t just scare you in the moment: it lingers with you, it haunts you, and it plays with your mind whenever you dip your toe into the deep blue sea. It is not hype to say that an entire generation of moviegoers learned to be afraid of the water from Jaws.

The real genius of Jaws was its ability to—really for the first time—come up with something as terrifying as the dark. For as long as long as humans have had the capacity for fear, they have been afraid of the dark. You can’t see in it, so there could be anything there. When you step into it, you are rendered all but helpless. And no matter what is in there, odds are that it would not be nearly as terrifying if you could actually see it. Jaws took everything that we’ve always feared about the dark and applied it to the sea.

The power of that approach was rendered even more potent by the happy accident of the malfunctioning mechanical shark. Spielberg’s difficulties with his malfunctioning monster have been well-documented, and the production’s inability to keep the shark prop functioning properly during the shoot forced Spielberg to adjust his style on the fly. So, rather than seeing the shark in all its glory early and often, Spielberg instead offers us subtle suggestions of the shark’s presence—the simple chords of the brilliant score, a swimmer’s reaction to the shark’s attack, a shadow in the water—and brief glimpses. By making the shark the thing behind the door, by the time we actually see it, we are already terrified of it.

Jaws may have been the first summer blockbuster, but it will always be a Halloween movie to me.