There are now two good shark movies: Jaws and this one.
Jaume Collet-Serra (Run All Night, Non-Stop, Orphan, Unknown) has done what was previously attempted by dozens of others in myriad ways: They’ve tried making the sharks smarter (Deep Blue Sea), bigger (Mako), multiple headed (2-Headed Shark Attack, 3-Headed Shark Attack), crossed with pirahnas (Pirahna Sharks), crossed with octopi (the Sharktopus franchise), undead (the Ghost Shark franchise, Zombie Sharks), cyborg (Robosharks), land-borne (Avalanche Sharks, Sand Sharks, that great SNL sketch), airborne (Sky Sharks, the Sharknado series) and mall-borne (Bait 3D). They even tried making ’em black-and-white (1936’s White Death, which I think is the only real shark movie prior to Jaws). All of these focus on the sharks, of course, and it must be a reasonably profitable approach or they wouldn’t keep doing it, right?
But the thing that makes Jaws work are the men fighting the shark. We care what happens to them and, whatever their flaws, we like them and want them to survive. Well, maybe not, since many of the dozens of movies since then have clearly been rooting for the sharks.
Collet-Serra and screenwriter Anthony Jaswinski change this up by giving us a mano-a-mano, girl against fish approach: Blake Lively is a young woman unable to get over her mother’s death, and so journeys to the sort of hidden cove in a Latin American country (where, in another sort of movie, she’d be terrorized by the locals, possibly sacrificed or maybe eaten). Her mother apparently visited this site while pregnant with her, as an avid surfer, and now Nancy (our heroine’s improbable name) is going out to do the same.
It doesn’t seem like such a wild thing but Dad (Bret Cullin) doesn’t agree, especially with Nancy having dropped out of med school. Mom was a fighter, you see, if not exactly a survivor. We call this foreshadowing.
Anyway, before you can say “We’re gonna need a bigger surfboard”, Nancy finds herself in hostile shallow water with an insanely aggressive Great White. Most of this plays out like a survival picture, a la 127 Hours, with Nancy coming up with various clever possible ways out of predicament, even as she fights dehydration, hunger, injury and existential ennui. (Just kidding: There is no ennui when you’re the #1 person of interest to a shark.)
The shark, of course, must behave improbably, which is the weak link in all shark movies, but this one, for the most part, doesn’t seem super-intelligent, super-powered or super-aggressive. Just enough of all those to be reasonably threatening. The ending is absurd, but I was okay with it. There were only a couple of ways it could end, and a big movie ending was probably better than a lower-key, more realistic ending.
Blake Lively plays her role convincingly: Her character is resourceful but not fearless, smart but not perfect, etc. She’s in a bikini for a lot of the proceedings, and Collet-Serra does a good job not leering, as directors sometimes do with beautiful, scantily-clad leading ladies. (I’m not against leering per se, but it can certainly undermine a movie. The survival genre has to be pretty anhedonic or it works against the dynamic of the film.)
But, this doesn’t suck, is the main thing. You got one person (basically), one shark, and a neat little gripping drama/adventure out of it, with enough horror to provide some thrills. Critics, interestingly, have aggregately rated this higher than audiences (76% to 64%), but I suspect that’s because a goodly portion of the 36% who didn’t like this film wanted a shark with more heads, or more teeth, or who were maybe Nazis or…
Holy crap. Nazi sharks. Hasn’t been done yet.
I’ll be right back. I’ve gotta go register this with the WGA!