The Shallows | Review
The Shark Who Came in from the Deep: Collet-Serra’s Shark Attack Sticks to the Basics
There will likely never be a shark attack film as unnerving and terrifying as Steven Spielberg’s iconic Jaws (1975), which primed movie going audiences for the notion of event cinema (now a taken-for-granted norm dependent on the mulch of endlessly recycled themes). The new film by Jaume Collet-Serra, The Shallows (who is taking a break from working with Liam Neeson—sorry, his gruff pipes weren’t utilized for the Great White) doesn’t come close, depending solely on the wistful, if resilient breathiness of Blake Lively as she enters a long winded stand-off with an overly aggressive predator of the sea. There are certainly nail-biting moments of high anxiety, as the film plays with humankind’s conditioned aversion to both the unknown and the instinctual viciousness of one of Earth’s most notorious meat-eaters. As a character study, however, Anthony Jaswinski’s (who penned Brad Anderson misstep The Vanishing on Seventh Street) script leaves much to be desired with belabored and feeble developments.
Less would have been more regarding the forced progression of Nancy’s (Lively) struggle, who is dropped off an emotional precipice of privilege in the film’s opening moments. Scrolling through uploaded Polaroids of her pregnant mum dated 1991, she is chastised by her driver (Oscar Jaenada, star of the recent Cantinflas biopic) for missing out on the natural beauty unfolding all around her. But the exchange reveals Nancy is trekking out to a beach (which has no name) in Mexico, the same one her mother visited when she first learned she was pregnant. We also learn mom recently died of cancer after a significant struggle and Nancy dropped out of medical school before completing her program, though she was nearly finished. A tense round of FaceTime with dad (Brett Cullen) and younger sister Chloe (Sedona Legge) ensues before she’s off in the pristine waters to surf, with two other young local men also enjoying the waves (they refuse to tell her the name of the beach, as well). Eventually left all alone, she gets a bit too close to the bleeding carcass of a wounded whale and is suddenly attacked by a Great White shark, an unusual occurrence considering how shallow the waters are. A gushing gash in her thigh, she is left stranded on a rocky perch about two hundred yards from shore, with only a wounded seagull for company as an ominous fin circles.
The film’s tagline, “What was once in the deep is now in the shallows” could just as well explain the current state of mainstream cinema as it does the behavior of a wayward shark looking for tasty human morsels near the beach. Since we only have the perspective of Lively, the film isn’t held accountable for explaining the behavior of the shark (although, thankfully, there are no traces of the religious fantasy mongering here, as in the recent true account, Soul Surfer, 2011).
Despite the crushing obviousness of the script, including her return to a mysterious beach she was last on as a fetus (and where she may now actually die), and the somewhat problematic logistics of how and when she was supposed to eventually return to her hotel, Lively gives one of her best performances to date, even when the screenplay demands some asides clearly meant to comfort the audience, such as chit chats with her wounded seagull co-star. Although earlier montages in the film stray a bit too hedonistically on the performer as she gracefully surfs or munches an apple, it’s refreshing to see such resilience in a female character not explained away on luck or religion. In turn, Lively emotes beyond a usual register of despairing worldliness, compared to her recent appearances in a handful of vehicles forcing us to believe she sustains a palpable wisdom beyond her years (The Age of Adaline; Café Society).
Collet-Serra has quickly become a master of nicely dressed cheap thrills, breaking out with an inspired twist in 2009’s Orphan and then settling into a trend of Liam Neeson no-brainers (Unknown; Non-Stop; Run All Night). His usual DP Flavio Martinez Labiano captures a sense of tainted tropical paradise (though The Shallows doesn’t feature the same aquatic phenomenal frames of something like Evolution, courtesy of Manu Dacosse), and the skyline palette takes on a moody personality of its own (even as it sometimes feels a bit over-generated). Marco Beltrami assists with a nervous score, though it gets away with being a bit leading and manipulative thanks to the obviousness of the script (the eventual ‘resolution’ also falls on the implausible end of things). But for those hoping for tense shark vs. human interactions, The Shallows delivers on this front, even if it ultimately could have been smarter, leaner, and much more vicious.