And now, to something completely different. Last week I watched the movie „The Shallows“ with a good friend of mine. To me, that was an experiment as the set-up of the movie (one lone female surfer strands on an island in shallow water and tries to escape a great white shark that circles her) was a „hit-or-miss“ thing: this movie could either be GREAT or „meeew“. At the end, I decided to call this movie „meeew“. My friend did not argue that decision, but was curious to hear what made a shark movie a good one in my books . I had to think about that. Of course, I had an easy time to name a good shark movie („Jaws“, of course, and „Jaws II“), but to exactly name what a shark movie would need to have in order to be GOOD took me some time and coffee. And thereby I now present my thoughts to you in the form of a blog post I call „Good Shark Movies vs. The Shallows“. Feel free to leave a comment if you have a different point of view (as long as you don´t flame me) 🙂
1) Good (or at least acceptable) special effects
Shark movies are basically “Creature Feature” movies, and this means that the special effects must not be bad. If they are, the whole viewing experience is ruined no matter how good the rest of the movie is.
The Shallows offers good special effects. Of course, it is CGI but we are talking good CGI here and not the infamous SyFy-Channel / The Asylum- style of CGI.
A shark movie must make use of suspense. It only has this one element of action and terror (the shark) and when it is let out of the box… it is out of the box. Once out, it either must be a lingering danger OR the movie must switch into high gear. Going on in high gear can only be done for so long before the engine is crippled and it all dies down.
The Shallows starts out with a “found footage” scene. Thereby, the viewer knows when the shark is going to attack and knows two characters that are going to die even before those characters are introduced. This kills some of the suspense right from the start. During the movie, suspense is made use of and in a good way, but as some of the “what-is-going-to-happen” is revealed up front… well, it has thrown a wrench into its own gears here.
3) DO NOT RIPOFF THE JAWS!
That might be a pet peeve of mine, but it is one and so I include it here. I -HATE- it when a shark movie “ripoffs” two elements from the first “JAWS” movie: the dead whale and the found shark tooth. Those scenes have been ripped off by so many mediocre or outright useless shark movies so often that by now they have the appeal of 30-year old crack hooker who started doing business when she was 16 and stopped showering when she became 18. There is -nothing- right or good or enjoyable about that anymore.
The Shallows… well, guess what…
4) Good, likable characters.
In a shark movie, the shark is the antagonist. It is the monster or an avatar of the force of nature, something that is a grave danger to the protagonist. The antagonist only works as intended when the viewer cares for the protagonist. And, somebody needs to die during the movie. If nobody gets eaten in a shark movie, the shark is a toothless thread and something is wrong. While I believe that it might be possible to have a good shark movie where nobody dies, I would consider that to be a masterpiece and do not know of any such. Thereby, the movie writer is well advised to have (at least) a small cast of well developed, believable and likable characters. Just because somebody has to die and the audience should care about that. Most movies use red-shirts here, and while red shirts are basically “tried and true” I for one would never consider them “good writing” (so they are not “bad writing” in their own right).
The Shallows has only one real character that is facing the shark, and I wished to see this damsel dead before she even reached the beach. Sure, she has a sob-story background for being there (which is revealed to the viewer in VERY ANNOYING, very large inserts of smart phone text messages.. somewhere on a next-to-unknown secluded beach in Mexico), but during the first minutes of the introduction she comes across as a blond airhead (at least to me). Oh, she is good looking and the movie caters a fine selection of “tits ´n ass” to the interested viewer, but tit ´n ass do not make a character and will only help a movie that is good in its own right. It will never -safe- a movie, and it will not safe a character. The redshirts the Shallow uses are… well… the kind of people you don´t sympathize with and one of them is right out of the “the viewer is intended to want him dead” box of character writing. The most likable character ended up to be a seagull. Go figure. Okay, that was mean. But it is not really far from the truth, either.
5) A good setting and a good score
The thing that makes sharks scary is that us petty humans face them on THEIR turf. If we would face one of them on dry land, we would not be impressed at all, as the animal is helpless there. But a shark movie makes us humans face the sharks in the water or on the water. That is their realm, they are the top predator there because they are perfectly adapted to that environment. Us humans, we are not adapted to ANY environment. The thing that makes us the great rulers of earth is that we adapt the environment to us. Shark movies strips that away. We humans have our boats, we have our scuba gears but on the ocean and in the water we are not in control. Control would mean safety. The moment we leave the land, we lose both and the shark is a most brutal reminder of that fact.
To drive this home during the long parts of the movie where there is no shark on screen, the movie needs to have a good score and a good setting. The score is even more important than the setting here, because you cannot have too much dialog in a shark movie. If the cast is chatting all the time, they kill the suspense and the atmosphere. Of course, a very good movie could make perfect use of silence and the sounds of nature alone, but let´s face the facts: it is a good thing that somebody invented the concept of movie scores somewhere in the history of cinema. It makes things so much easier.
The Shallows has a good setting and it has a good score, at least I don´t remember the score as unpleasant. And a good score often is like a good butler: not to be noted but always there.
6) Plausible Sharks
I really don´t care if a movie presents me mutated sharks, wounded sharks, sharks breed for war, cybersharks or sharks under the control of aliens. But a shark should be a shark and act a bit like a shark OR should have an established “in-movie-reason” to act the way it acts.
The Shallows has a shark that acts odd. Sure, it is established at some point that it is wounded (and thereby more aggressive, as wounded animals are supposed to be). But this shark sometimes kills for the fun of it. It bites somebody IN HALF in the mid of water but allows its prey to crawl onto the beach so that we can have this “oh, he crawls on although his lower body is already coming loose” gore moment (which was the WORST moment of the movie to me). The shark does not only circle the prey that is captured on land (although there is a not yet eaten whale drifting nearby), it bites into metal and pulls and tears at it. Yes, sharks do this in the water when they want the prey inside of a shark cage. Yes, animals are smart enough to ram boats and yes, my oh-so-beloved “Jaws” has a shark that acts -wrong- as well. But in “Jaws”, I somehow was able to stomach it better (or perhaps I just should watch Jaws again).
Last but not least, the Shallows managed to annoy me with product placement of modern technology from the very first minute.Yes, movies need financing and product placement is one way to do this. But that was silly, it worked against the like-ability of the main character and made me want to stop the movie.
Really guys, unless you want to dissect a movie with a couple of friends and a couple of beers, only watch “the Shallows” if you have nothing better to do. I wanted to like the movie, but it did not worked out. I would have liked to give it a 5/10 or even a 6/10, but this one is a 4/10. Which is a SAD thing, because it has its moments.