July 18 2016 08:38 AM

“The Shallows” parlays Hollywood flaws into a gripping survival saga

MONDAY, July 18 — “The Shallows” should have been a clichéd, simplistic Hollywood bore, a dumb “Jaws” meets “Gravity” knock-off. And yet this survival thriller/horror film is exciting, tense and cathartic.

Nancy Adams (Blake Lively), a recent medical school dropout, takes a trip to an idyllic beach in order to relax, surf, and find herself. Her late mother visited the same beach while pregnant with her. Towards the end of the day, after two beach bums she meets on the water have turned to shore for the night, Nancy is attacked by a shark and is forced to take refuge at a small island created by the low tide. Her only companion is an injured seagull.

The film is not without its flaws. For one thing, it likely would have benefited from less backstory and exposition in its already trim, 86-minute narrative. It feels like the filmmakers — or, more likely, the producers or studio — felt that the audience wouldn’t go for a simple story of a woman fighting off a shark attack. Cut some of the narrative fat at the beginning and end of the film, especially the gratuitous and awkward epilogue, and the movie would likely improve. That’s not to say that Nancy’s backstory is unnecessary or unimportant. It actually gives her situation and growth some added resonance, but its execution is a tad clumsy and dull, and feels downright heavy-handed at times.

But what holds the film back most of all is that the filmmakers seem to feel the need (or perhaps even the desire) to stay firmly within the confines of what is acceptably mainstream, to make it look and feel like your run-of-the-mill, meat-and-potatoes Hollywood thriller. Commercial mandates are the film’s downfall. Besides the plot problems listed above, there are several shots in which the camera downright caressing Lively’s bikini-clad body, and sequences — surfing sequences in particular — that look like advertisements. I half expected an announcement for Blake Lively’s new line of swimsuits and surf paraphernalia at the end of these bits.

But there’s a flip side to each of these flaws. The exposition and backstory, however poblematic, do give Nancy some much-needed depth without sacrificing her everywoman persona. Well, “everywoman” may be a bit of a stretch. Lively’s looks and natural charisma are a bit intimidating and hard to identify with.

While there are a few too many shots of Lively’s back (and front) side, there’s an interesting exchange toward the beginning that complicates an easy “objectifying male gaze” reading of these images. Nancy points out to Carlos (Oscar Jaenada), the man who gave her a ride to the beach, that the small islands just off shore vaguely form the shape of a pregnant woman lying on her back. The film seems to be suggesting that the female form has a grand, natural beauty, that femininity is graceful, life-giving and worthy of respect. Suddenly, those shots of Lively in her flattering orange bikini feel less lustful and more reverential, as if there is respect for her body mingled within the desire for it. This doesn’t mean the shots are completely devoid of uncomfortably sexualized context, but it’s infinitely preferable to, say, the way Michael Bay shoots Megan Fox in the Transformers films, a gaze that’s less respectful and more like that of a horny, misogynistic 12-year-old boy. This angle becomes more apparent when the film is considered as a feminist response to Jaws, a film that is gratingly, callously macho, despite its thrills and formal elegance. The male protagonists in Jaws kill the shark by (what else?) by blowing it up. Nancy merely wants to escape her horrifying situation and deals with the shark through ingenuity and empathy, thinking like the shark, predicting its next move, and turning its aggressive, predatory nature against it. I can’t think of a better answer to the stupid, aggressively masculine idea of going out to sea and looking for a shark to kill it. Plus, I can’t imagine any man in Jaws taking the time to help fix the wing of an injured seagull. The Shallows is ultimately a very feminine, empathetic thriller.

The movie’s intermittent advertising aesthetic is also surprisingly effective when viewed outside the context of actual advertising. How often do ads use sleek, dynamic shots of beautiful young people having a good time to sell us something? But when no product or company logo appears at the end of these sequences, an unusual thing happens: we get to enjoy it, to bask in the elation of this good time we’ve vicariously had with these gorgeous people, without feeling tricked. Director Jaume Collet-Serra (Non-Stop, Run All Night) is still trying to sell us something, but it’s less a specific product or lifestyle and more a mindset, a sort of “carpe diem” for the millennial generation, and a respect and appreciation for the natural beauty of the world conveyed through the ineffable power of cinema. (The end credits, I swear to God, reminded me of sequences in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life.)

And Collet-Serra shows an impressive if still somewhat shallow (sorry, I’ll show myself out) sense of style. He builds and expands upon the suspense techniques Spielberg deployed in Jaws and his sound design is particularly impressive. To add another feather to his cap, he’s probably the first director I’ve seen who knows how to use Blake Lively effectively. He makes the smart decision to let her be more of a silent movie actress and lets her do rather than just talk. (Thus, my dislike for the script’s more exposition-heavy passages.) Lively’s physicality and star power carry the film and provides a solid template for how she and her directors can put her charisma to use in future films.

Yes, there are elements that are boringly Hollywood and materialistic about The Shallows, but those elements partially work. All I know is that by the end of this film, my nerves were shot and I was emotionally drained. I had just been taken on a ride and loved most of it. If only Hollywood made more films like this. It doesn’t have to be art, but if you want to entertain people, this is how you entertain.

Grade: B+