Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The Shallows: A Female Protagonist Done Right

The Seagull does not talk about movies very often.  For the most part, he only looks at Hollywood through the rearview mirror. 

They clearly don't like me.  They've made that fact abundantly clear over the last few years.  They might want my money or attention, but until they stop berating me and mocking me, they'll get as little from me as I can manage.

For various familial reasons, my daughter wanted to see the shark attack suspense movie The Shallows, and sometimes family movie night takes the wheel and kicks principled objections into the back seat.

It's a great suspense movie.  The threat builds, the reveals steady, and the resolution fast, violent, and brutal.  The most impressive part of the film is the successful use of a genuinely feminine protagonist who survives by dint of cleverness and determination.  The decision to cast the survivor as a female might have been driven by the more appealing cheesecake factor, but it adds to the suspense given her relative weakness.  That vulnerability heightens the suspense, and makes the viewer care even more about her fate. 

It might be accidental.  It might be patriarchal.  It might be a lot of things, but one thing it might not be, is bad film-making.  Worth note is that the violence is particularly well done.  Most of it happens off camera or is obscured by waves or rocks, and leaving the gore to the viewer's imagination is a refreshingly effective throwback to earlier film-making techniques, while leaving the movie accessible to more mature pre-teens.

There are a few idiot moments early on the story, but the producers made a few token gestures to explain the motivation behind them.  The viewer, having seen the trailer and understanding common safety rules, knows these are mistakes, but can at least understand why the girl in the water puts her desire to get into the water ahead of basic water safety.  Besides, the few mistakes she makes are critical to putting her in the dangerous situation that she spends the next eighty minutes struggling to escape.

And boy does she struggle.  Every time she solves one problem another one rears its ugly head.  The universe clearly has it in for her, and she frequently pauses to acknowledge these little moments with a slight, "You gotta be kidding me," look.  It's endearing and makes her a far more sympathetic heroine than another cut and paste badass dude with boobs and a womb.

All in all, this is a tight little movie with great pacing, and just the kind of believable and sympathetic female protagonist that Paul Fieg, JJ Abrams, and Joss Whedon only wish they knew how to create.

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