The opening sequence of Jaws is the most terrifying prologue in horror history, full stop. Steven Spielberg's monumental talent as a director is a major reason for this (speaking of which, it's a shame he hasn't directed another horror film), but let's not forget Susan Blacklinie's memorable flailing as Chrissie Watkins, the doomed swimmer whose untimely death kicks off the 1975 classic in hair-raising fashion.
A lot of horror films begin with the death of an attractive woman, but very few make you feel for her the way that Jaws does. The key to evoking this sympathy comes late in the scene, when Chrissie is given a few brief, cruel seconds of respite mid-attack. As the young woman hangs on to a nearby buoy for dear life, we can hear her praying — and suddenly, astonishingly, it is as if we are eavesdropping on a private, tragic final moment, the end of a life.
Thusly, the scene works as well as it does not because of where Spielberg puts the camera, but because he allows us a fleeting glimpse of Chrissie's soul. As her panicked final plea is cut off by the unforgiving black water, we are left rocked and haunted by what's happened to her. It's a loss we really feel, providing us early on with that penetrating human element that has always marked Spielberg's best films.
So what if Chrissie had survived? I couldn't help consider this while watching the latest trailer for The Shallows, a new action-thriller that stars Blake Lively as a surfer who must fend off the unrelenting attacks of a great white shark after being stranded on a giant rock 200 yards offshore.
With her long limbs and straight blond hair, Lively physically resembles Blacklinie, and a number of shots in the trailer function (intentionally or unintentionally) as homages to Chrissie's last swim. But unlike the former, Lively's character survives the initial attack; and while I'm not necessarily a fan of either the actress or director Jaume Collet-Serra, I'm compelled by the way it suggests an alternate outcome for Spielberg's tragically unlucky swimmer.
Near the end of the trailer, Lively can be seen climbing onto the buoy to escape the shark, and that's the shot that most suggests a direct line between Spielberg's classic and Serra's. The moment, while brief, resonates because it's as close as we'll ever get to seeing what it would have looked like if Chrissie's prayers had been answered.