Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra
Opens June 24
In the recent documentary De Palma, subject and filmmaker Brian De Palma frames himself, toward the end of the picture, as sort of the last heir to Alfred Hitchcock. It’s not entirely untrue: Many of today’s best American directors stay away from studio workhorse mode, and as B-pictures have ascended to A-picture tentpole status, even the more lavish B-movies tend to have their sharper corners sanded away. Hell, even a bona fide horror-movie stylist like James Wan spends a lot of time pretty much refashioning the same sort of haunted-house scares.
It would be easy, then, to overpraise the underpraised Jaume Collet-Serra, a studio workhorse who has yet to receive (or accept) a crucial, possibly ruinous promotion to summer-sequel duty. His credits include the House of Wax remake, Orphan, and a trilogy of Liam Neeson genre movies (Unknown; Non-Stop; Run All Night) that, I never tire of pointing out, are vastly superior to Neeson’s actual trilogy of Taken hits. The first two of the Neeson pictures have Hitchcockian hooks, if not exactly those smarts, and Collet-Serra’s new movie The Shallows has a similar simplicity, plus a dash of exploitation. It’s Hitchcock with side-butt.
Collet-Serra has nowhere near the tension-ratcheting bona fides of Hitchcock or, for that matter, the technical virtuosity of De Palma at his frequent (if erratic) best. But he knows how to operate a B-movie juicer better than most. The Shallows is one of his best, maybe because the premise is his cleanest yet: This is the movie where Blake Lively fights a fucking shark. Yes, there are motivations for her character, mostly poor-man’s-Gravity stuff about her beloved, departed mother and the idea of fighting for your life; though most of the movie takes place on a beach, Collet-Serra superimposes blown-up phone-screen images to fill in some backstory early on (as well as a ticking tide clock later). But the truth of the matter is this: Blake Lively goes surfing at a remote Mexican beach and is bedeviled by a shark as well as the attendant survival difficulties when you are stranded on a small rock in the ocean while a shark circles you, hungrily.
This shark is a real jerk, perhaps past the normal degree of jerkitude present in sharks, who probably do not spend as much time as this one in pursuit of biting a single person, even if it is Blake Lively. Sharktivists will likely be furious, but they can at least glory at the many and varied cosmic punishments doled out to Lively, whose character needs all of her med-school-dropout expertise to stay alive. Lively is the subject of a fascinating push-pull between glam and grit, even before she gets shark-bit; early on, Collet-Serra goes in close on her face in a way that makes her look older than she ever has on screen (perhaps not a great feat when her hundred-year-old character in Age of Adaline specifically stayed Vintage Lively in appearance). In other shots, she’s as sun-kissed as ever. This continues as she’s stranded in the ocean, as the film alternates between highlighting her beauty and the damage done by a pesky shark, coral, starvation, and so on. The self-surgery and ingeniously absurd anti-shark strategizing gathers Lively’s moxie, and she makes a scrappy, resourceful heroine (her greatest indignity is the movie’s insistence that she ought to talk to herself semi-regularly, to better spell things out for the audience). Any shades of horror-torture fall away.
The shades of crimson, though, stick around, especially in the oddly gorgeous first attack sequence, where the shark isn’t shown in full but an underwater shot of Lively turns bright red. Collett frequently plunges the camera below the water’s surface; the scenes of oceanic scuffle have bursts of athleticism. He also has a keen sense of when the movie will benefit from flipping the bonkers switch, hence a canted shot of Lively’s blood-stained seagull sidekick (yes), and also the fact that Lively has a blood-stained seagull sidekick at all; that was probably in the screenplay, but credit Collet-Serra for not immediately tearing out those pages and setting them on fire (especially knowing that he’s not averse to setting things on fire). The Shallows swims right along the line between barely credible and flat-out nuts, as did Non-Stop and Orphan before it. Coming out on the same weekend where a big studio attempts to recapture the blockbuster rush a bunch of people felt twenty years ago this July, here’s a modest, swift, silly thriller that really feels like summer.