Reviewer: Philip Price
Directors: Jaume Collet-Serra
Stars: Angelo Jose, Blake Lively, Brett Cullen, Diego Espejel, Jose Manual, Lozano Corzo,Óscar Jaenada, Pablo Calva, Sedona Legge, Sully Seagull, Trujillo Salas
Released: August 12th, 2016
The Shallows is just about what one would expect from a film about a pretty girl getting stranded on a rock as she is threatened by the ominous presence of a great white shark. The film is both a contained bit of biting tension while at the same time relaying little more than schlocky fun. What allows the film to transcend its rather simple and sometimes inferior qualities when compared to the big budget fare it faces during the summer months and become more of what a horror or action auteur might have produced in their early, limited budget days is the combination of both Blake Lively’s performance and the sharp, concise direction of Jaume Collet-Serra (Non-Stop, Run All Night). Sure, The Shallows is ultimately a forgettable movie that will stand to leave no lasting impression and may even be disappointing to those who walk in expecting more action and less mood, but considering what the film clearly sets out to accomplish from the get-go it fulfills its goals pretty effortlessly in that Collet-Serra uses the stripped down screenplay from Anthony Jaswinski (Vanishing on 7th Street) as a way to find interesting ways to convey the story. The outline is familiar and the beats we hit are expected, but it is the way Collet-Serra slyly introduces the context of our protagonist’s situation and her background that might allow some of the more necessary things that need to be done when under attack by a shark get accomplished. It is the way in which the parts we know are going to happen are so seamlessly set-up that allow us to, despite knowing what is coming, still be surprised when those moments do in fact occur. All of this is to say that while on its most basic of principles The Shallows should be nothing more than a B-movie in the vein of something that goes direct to DVD it is by virtue of the talent involved that it has become more than that: a thoroughly entertaining thrill ride made credible by Lively’s presence and made to look like that of a higher class of story by Collet-Serra’s inherent ability to add real tension and stakes in an otherwise throwaway narrative.
Though it will ultimately be unclear as to where the line was drawn between Jaswinski’s script and Collet-Serra’s film it seems safe to assume that besides the major plot points, much of what is conveyed here comes from the director’s storytelling techniques. While the dialogue and certain events might have been written down it is small, simple touches such as the way Collet-Serra works in technology and social media that communicate more than a scene of expositional dialogue ever could have. For all we know, there might have been a scene that existed in the original script that had Lively’s Nancy explaining how she’d lost her mother and how she was at odds with her father after dropping out of medical school in favor of traveling the globe to locate the “secret” beach her mother went to when she was pregnant with her. Instead, Collet-Serra conveys as much through what is more or less a split screen displaying photos of Nancy’s mother from her time on the beach as Nancy looks at them affectionately only later to conduct a short facetime call between Nancy and her younger sister that hints at a strained relationship between Nancy and her father. This integration of modern technology feels natural rather than like the lazy way around real storytelling. Nancy is driven to the beach by a kind local named Carlos (Óscar Jaenada) who gives her the lay of the land without ever giving her the name of the beach. Carlos is sure to ask Nancy if she needs a ride back to where she is staying, but she naturally commits the cardinal sin of going to a remote location all by her lonesome. As the beach is in a remote location and so far off the grid no one could possibly find her once the shark attack occurs we know the movie is going to have to find some interesting ways to get Nancy out of the pickle we know she is inevitably going to encounter and this is where Collet-Serra really excels. A shot that conveys not only how unforgiving the shark is going to be, but the natural oceanic landscape as well is beautifully and brutally captured. A seasoned surfer, the waves also happen to be really good at this mystery beach, but after encountering two fellow surfers and passing on their offer for her to join them (hinting even more so at the state of mind Nancy currently occupies) Nancy comes across what turns out to be the corpse of a large whale whose blood has attracted-you guessed it! A great white shark.
The best thing about The Shallows is that it knows what it is and embraces that from the get go-hell, it even kind of plays with those expectations in the tone the director takes from the somewhat self-parodying opening act. There is the aforementioned conversation that takes place between Nancy and Carlos that sets up these archetypes of movies where pretty people get stranded in exotic locations only to see this sense of adventure go south on them, but in the way Collet-Serra playfully conveys the foreshadowing by simply dropping us into the situation with zero to no idea about what is going on viewers have no choice but to buy into the situation as they’ve already bought a ticket. Collet-Serra plays with these expectations because he knows he has to at this point. Shark movies have become something of a parody in and of themselves and so if audiences are going to legitimately become involved and invested in the film he was going to have to ease viewers into it. It doesn’t hurt that the filmmaker has the gorgeous Lively to photograph as if she were shooting an ad for her own brand of perfume, but in approaching the opening act as if he were making a straight B-movie the director is then able to jolt us out of our seats when the first real and well-placed moment of fear swims up to grab us. Coming to terms with what his film has to be in our current cultural landscape to get to what it wants to be may be the films biggest, unnoticed achievement, but that Collet-Serra is able to accomplish as much in a way that most viewers won’t catch only means the man is doing his job as effectively as he can. Granted, overall The Shallows left me with the feeling that it was really good for what it wanted and was intended to be, but purely a good enough one that audiences will undoubtedly have some fun with and have no trouble forgetting 48 hours later doesn’t allow this to rank among the more exceptional films of the year. At a brief 86-minutes the film breezes by, offering cheap thrills and a likable protagonist, making it hard to complain given the challenges the crew faced in making something even worthy of praise in this genre, but The Shallows has no problem baiting you to wonder, “what more could you want from me?”
Besides Collet-Serra, the obvious star of The Shallows is Lively who, despite having a few other actors to play off of, largely goes at this one alone. In coming to this realization it becomes more and more obvious as the film moves along just how good Lively actually is. That she is first and foremost able to make us care about this individual without thinking of her as an idiot for so obviously walking into what is clearly a bad idea of a situation, but that she is also as resourceful as she is and that she is able to convey that aforementioned mindset convincingly and ultimately evacuate it due in part to the experience she goes through in this brief slice of her life where we get to know her leaves nothing short of a solid impression. It should also be noted that Lively gets her own “Wilson” of sorts in Steven “Sully” Seagull with the best part being that we actually come to care about the injured bird as well. There are moments of real anxiety where we wonder not only if Nancy is going to be able to defy what looks to be a dead end situation, but also where it looks like Sully is going to meet his maker as well and while what happens will be left up in the air in this review it is the fact that Lively in her interactions with the bird and Collet-Serra in his ability to make us bite our nails over the fate of both characters are skills not everyone has and The Shallows exploits these keen abilities to balance the schlock and the sincere satisfaction. Still, it is Lively’s performance as the relentless Nancy that allows us into this world and to be the centerpiece on which Collet-Serra hangs all of his neat tricks and fancy camerawork. Collet-Serra could have all the cunning and skillful tricks in the world to make a campy, fun thriller, but to make it plausible and worth instilling some measure of our emotional investment in it takes a performer who can take that material the extra mile and Lively demonstrates she has the ability to do so here by not allowing the shark (which is what will attract most summer movie-goers to this smaller fare) to be the main attraction, but rather the character arc of Nancy and the question of if she will make it or not. The Shallows doesn’t offer much beyond its basic premise, but it does what it sets out to do in an exceptional fashion and when you’re talking about shark movies that is saying something.