What’s the measure of a good thriller, anyway? In Catalan director Jaume Collet-Serra’s cinema, thrills are what arise out of unexpectedly modern pleasures. Early on in The Shallows, as Nancy (Blake Lively) hitches a ride to a secret beach she learned of from her late mother, she can’t help but scroll through old photos of that same beach on Instagram. She’s right there!, her driver reminds her, urging her to put down her phone. Point taken. The setting, a fecund coastal jungle somewhere in Mexico, is gorgeous. The thing is, when she’s on her phone, scrolling through memories, she glows — Collet-Serra’s images light her up, and the scenery, by association. (Have I mentioned she’s played by Blake Lively?) Everything onscreen takes on a sepia-rich sheen when her Instagram feed, magnified and posted up for us to see, scrolls in real time alongside her face.
It doesn’t end there. Later, she’ll have a FaceTime argument with her father about the directionless path she’s taking in life, and their faces will be superimposed onto lush panoramas of her strolling the beach, huge talking avatars hovering over the spotless blue water. Even later in the movie, she’ll see a video of herself on a dead surfer’s GoPro camera, watching from his perspective as she tries to help him onto a rock while a shark rips him to bits, which — OK — isn’t as beautiful or wondrous as the other stuff. It’s horrific. But (spoiler) it saves her life.
Thanks to his admirably strange and accomplished horror films, House of Wax and (especially) Orphan, Collet-Serra has a reputation for sensuous, intelligent scares. They serve him well here: It’s a shark tale, after all. But his real speciality, of late, is the high-concept confection, a thriller deliberately confined in time and space, in the mixed tradition of Hitchcock (Rope, Rear Window) and action thrillers like Speed and Gravity, so that the psychologies of his characters feel increasingly put upon. He hems them in. Nancy spends the bulk of The Shallows trapped on a rock 200 yards off the shore, smack in the middle of an incredibly bitchy great white shark’s feeding grounds. Non-Stop, another of his energetically titled Neeson movies, is a cleverly deceptive hostage thriller and psychological mystery set on a commercial airliner. Incidentally, his next movie will be set on a train.
As Collet-Serra knows, these boundaries aren’t so easy to fix in place when every character has an iPhone and when, as in Unknown and Run All Night, surveillance footage can throw characters’ entire worlds into flux. Seems like a small thing to incorporate everyday, 21st-century image-making technology into your movie at a time when prize-winning, feature-length movies are being shot on smartphone cameras and “Citizen Journalist with YouTube Channel” is practically a script mandate for thrillers. (Non-Stop has one such character, in fact.) But lately, technology in his movies has thinned out the distinctions between analog and digital worlds, between psychological and technological selves. Even text messages strike an awkward chord. In Non-Stop, a U.S. Marshall’s mental stability is so thoroughly called into question that a series of texts from a terrorist on his flight, which flash onscreen for us to read, start to seem like his own inner conflict, manifest: not texts, but speech bubbles spoken from self to self.
In the digital age, with a cellphone in every character’s pocket, is every thriller potentially a tech parable? It’d be fun to revise movie history with that in mind. Picture Vertigo in the age of Facebook’s face recognition. Imagine that Morgan Freeman could use Google Books or JSTOR or, frankly, Wikipedia on his phone in Seven, instead of pulling all-nighters rereading The Canterbury Tales in a public library — and making photocopies! In a long, sensuous sequence early in The Shallows, Collet-Serra goes out of his way to depict the rapture of the open water, the freedom to move and be when your cellphone is in a backpack on shore and your texts are free to go unanswered.
Then a shark comes.
The idea of a world beyond reach seems foreign to his characters, which makes for good drama, smarter and livelier (sorry) than most of what’s hogging space in our Netflix queues. Collet-Serra is now 11 years and a whopping seven movies into his career; we know his films and his methods by now, if not his name. If his work has any single, persistent flaw, it’s an overreliance on the telegraphed tropes of bad screenwriting: Too many cancer backstories; too many subsequent reveals of prior pain. Neeson’s U.S. Marshall in Non-Stop has a drinking problem, AND a dead daughter, AND, you sense, latent paranoia.
In a script that evokes 9/11 hijackings and 21st-century cultural distrust, the extra backstory is a little too much. Get me back to the terror-texting, which, paired with Neeson’s agonized confusion and brash sense of duty, gets us right to the meat of the matter, and to the heart of Collet-Serra’s cinema. You might imagine the future of the midbudget, classically satisfying action spectacle built from Collet-Serra’s other movies. It’s there, in the stray, suggestive Instagram “like,” and in the arguing faces of a father and daughter projected onto the sea, as if to dwarf them in a world much larger, more beautiful, and more terrible than their squabbling. His movies give off a light whiff of possibility: As the world changes, they seem poised to change with it, and his approach to stories might change. That’s the thrill. The pleasure is in the stories themselves.