A Movie a Day: The Shallows (2016)

Every film you have not seen is a new film.

That is my motto, those are the words I live by. It does not matter if the film is seventy years old, if you have not seen it is a new film to you because you have not yet experienced the magic of the work.

This column will be 365 articles focusing on a single film each day. It is my hope to entertain, as well as enlighten, perhaps even to educate, but more, if you have not seen the film, perhaps I can get you to see it. I will explore great films, good films, bad films and films that had no business being made.

They will never equal Jaws (1975), that must be said clearly. They tried with sequels that were increasingly terrible, they tried with Deep Blue Sea (1999) a really unnecessary movie about intellectually advanced sharks, and they tried with Open Water (2008), an independent movie made by a couple on the ocean using real sharks. Yes, they did, and the movie was not bad at all, just not Jaws (1975).

Try as they might, even with the advances in special effects and computer generated imaging, matching the genius of direction, editing, cinematography and acting in that classic seventies film will always prove impossible. You had a gifted director who understood exactly the type of film he was making, who could not only visualize the scenes as they were to play out, but gauge the audience reaction to them as he was directing them. It was his choice to show less of the shark when one of the mechanical sharks built for the film sank to the bottom of the sea. So instead he showed the fin, rising ominously out of the water, or even more terrifying, the point of view of the shark as it swam looking for its next meal. You had an editor who talked the same talk as her director and knew, inherently what the director was doing. The cinematographer was in synch with his director and the actors were with the young filmmaker all the way, often asking to write scenes for themselves, which he used. And the score, four notes, which have become synonymous with terror…raw, visceral terror.

Jaws (1975) remains among the best work of Spielberg’s career, it is among the finest edited films of all time, and the score is legend. Anyone who ever poo-oos the acting in Jaws (1975), they need to watch Robert Shaw tell the story of the Indianapolis again. They need to watch the faces of Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss as he tells that terrible story. Shaw deserved the Academy Award for supporting actor that year, but heartbreakingly was not even nominated. The film itself won three Oscars for editing, sound and score, losing Best Picture to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) another American masterpiece.

It is a masterpiece, period, and will never be equalled.

‘The Shallows’ however does a pretty great job of scaring the hell out of us, in its minimalist telling of a young woman’s battle with a great white shark terrorizing a small beach only a few surfers know. Grieving the death of her mother, a young woman portrayed by the lovely Blake Lively, heads out to surf for the day. There are a couple of other surfers close by, and unknown to them a massive great white shark cruising beneath them. Of course the shark attacks, appearing first, like a ghost in a massive wave Lively is riding, capturing the essence of a now infamous photograph that can be found on the web. When the shark attacks, it does so with frightening speed, and purpose, and the young woman finds herself alone on a rock, land far enough away to be a challenge, the tide is coming in and will sweep over the rock she is standing on, and she is bleeding badly from a leg wound.

That she proves resourceful is no real surprise, that it is believable is a surprise, but a happy one.

Lively is no Meryl Streep, but she has done fine work before. She was the best thing in Oliver Stone’s drug epic Savages (2012), understanding her part in the film and executing it superbly. Here she is equally terrific giving a fine physical performance, while capturing the abject terror of her circumstance. She knows she has no chance if the shark gets her in its deadly jaws, or within striking distance so she has to come up with ways to try and get distance between the beast and herself. The actress does very good work, and that is no small feat as she is onscreen most of the film by herself.

What I admired about her performance was that we can always see her thinking, trying to figure a way out of her problem. She knows she is losing a lot of blood from the bite wound on her thigh, and does her best to stem the flow, which attracts the killer. Weakened, she thinks and resolves issues as they come up, timing the sharks circling, looking for a way to get to the life buoy not far away, deciding when to risk her life. In every way the actress throws herself into the role and delivers her best screen performance thus far, and makes it clear to everyone who sees the film she is ready for more substantial work.

The special effects are striking, as the shark comes to vivid life, through the magic of CGI. With the advances in technology, it is no surprise the shark looks incredibly real, not at all like the sharks in the silly Deep Blue Sea (1999) which swallowed poor Samuel L. Jackson whole. If there is a difference between the shark in this film and the one in Jaws (1975), it is speed, the swiftness with which this one moves, the powerful force it is in the sea, and we certainly see more of this one than we did the shark in Jaws (1975). That said the effects are superb.

The picture is nicely directed, shot and edited, though it is the latter that gives it the punch it needs to frighten audiences. All in all, nicely done. I am sure there will be many members of the audience going to see Miss Lively in a bikini, and yes you get that, but along the way they are going to realize the lady can act. She anchors the film, gives it its humanity and wipes out any belief she cannot act. She can!