Thursday, September 15, 2016

THE SHALLOWS Has Unexpected Bite


- Believe it: THE SHALLOWS is one of the most purely fun movies of 2016 so far - a knowingly ridiculous thriller that is pure pulpy goodness. Director Jaume Collet-Serra is the real deal - a pop-art maestro who crafts a film both gorgeous to look at and unafraid to play up the absurdity inherent in its premise. On the surface, THE SHALLOWS may have looked, via its standard-issue marketing, like a standard-issue shark-attack movie. But dive deeper, and you'll find an expertly-crafted popcorn flick that proved to be one of the best see-it-with-an-audience movies of the summer. 

The premise of the film is extremely simple: Blake Lively plays Nancy - a thrill-seeking surfer who travels with her friend to a secluded beach, in search of its legendary waves (Point Break-style). But Nancy ends up surfing solo when her friend gets sick. Bad move: it turns out that these waters are shark infested - with one particularly sinister shark intent on preying on any human stupid enough to invade its turf. Nancy learns this lesson too late, and finds herself hopelessly stranded on a protruding rock far from shore. Now, she's got to figure out a way to get out of the ocean without becoming shark-food. 

Without spoiling too much, I will say that what makes THE SHALLOWS so fun is that it falls into maybe my favorite sub-genre of horror movie: one in which the would-be victim gets tough and decides to fight back against his or her tormentor. Blake Lively's character has major agency in this movie, and the result is that a film that could have been generic horror instead becomes a two-sided fight to the finish. One of the script's smartest moves is making Nancy a capable med student who has the ability to treat her own wounds as well as, in general, think on her feet. That's not to say that Nancy doesn't spend a lot of the movie in grave danger. But it is to say that this is ultimately a survival movie - and a lot of the fun comes from Nancy thinking through her situation, coming up with ways to elude and outsmart the predator that stalks her in the open water.

Fun is a great word to describe THE SHALLOWS in general. The movie fully embraces its pulpy sensibilities, with a dark sense of humor that I wasn't expecting. When I saw this in the theater, one guy sitting near me kept laughing in a semi-disgruntled fashion, thinking he was smarter than the movie. How wrong he was. THE SHALLOWS is a movie that knows exactly what it is and what it's doing, and intentionally goes big with moments meant to illicit shock and laughter. There's one darkly funny moment - in which a particularly obnoxious local gets his just desserts - that is one of the greatest "holy $%&#!" moments of any movie I've seen this year. Similarly, the climactic Nancy-vs.-shark battle is just so satisfyingly done. Over the top and pretty silly, sure, but in a way that is just spot-on in terms of knowingly-winky, B-movie awesomeness.

For her part, Blake Lively is quite good in this. I haven't always loved her performances in other films, but she is perfectly cast here - and I think her experience on a self-referential CW show like Gossip Girl comes in handy in THE SHALLOWS. Lively handles the film's B-movie tone well. And, let's face it, she is pretty much the embodiment of the quintessential surfer-girl - so she seems at home playing this character. You've also got to give her credit for handling the movie's rough-and-tumble physicality with ease and style.

Jaume Collet-Serra makes the movie - for all its B-movie pulpiness - look absolutely amazing. No way would THE SHALLOWS work as well as it does if not for Collet-Serra's ability to mix gorgeous tropical scenery with a palpable sense of dread and horror. And like I said, the guy has a sense of humor to boot. But man, this has to be one of the best-looking B-movies ever made.

I can't emphasize enough how pleasant of a surprise THE SHALLOWS was. Just an incredibly fun, tightly-spun woman-vs.-shark survival thriller. Watch it with a group if you can.

My Grade: A-

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