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Since 1975, a very specific set of standards have been in place for what has since become the ‘shark movie’. Laid down by Steven Spielberg in the genre-creating and -defining Jaws, it is impossible to watch a shark movie and not draw comparisons. That is the nature of greatness. Many films that have followed in its wake have tweaked, copied, paid homage, and tried to reproduce the ‘magic’ that made that film so beloved. The Shallows is marketed as a killer in the water movie, invoking Jaws with its predatory feel, but there is something more in this story that goes a little deeper than the tropes its trailers promise.
We meet Nancy (Blake Lively), a medical student dropout who travels with a friend to Mexico in hopes of finding a secluded beach. This beach is significant because it is the same one Nancy’s mother visited years before while pregnant with Nancy. Her mother has recently passed from cancer and since then, Nancy has been a bit directionless. Her friend decides to stay behind with some cute boys, leaving Nancy to find the beach on her own (which we learn through text messages). A Spanish-speaking local gets her there and she dismisses his offer to come back for her after dark. This is her journey now.
In the water already are two young men, surfing. She paddles out and makes friends, riding a few waves before the boys head in. She decides to stay out for one more, enjoying the peaceful serenity of the open sea. Now alone, she is met with a series of incidents that involve dolphins, a humpback whale and a seagull. But mostly, a shark. An enormous, great white shark. Bitten and stranded on a small coral out-cropping, Nancy must survive before the tide returns and buries her perch.
Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, The Shallows is less a horror movie than it is a psychological thriller. Wisely keeping the shark to the barest minimum for much of the film, the story keeps the beast mostly as a figure in shadow, occasionally bursting into the frame to remind us it has lots of teeth. It’s an impressive CGI creation that is based on reality but obviously exaggerated. That’s the point of course. No matter its real size, it is a spectre of great dimension for Nancy, the demon that patrols her perimeter, keeping her from finding safe shores, literally and metaphorically.
As a (wo)Man versus Nature film it is easily as good as any of a dozen others in the genre. It builds to the expected finale and doesn’t betray its premise. The shark, being the phantom that represents the denial of her mother’s passing and legacy, is decidedly effective and when the inevitable finale brings us full circle to the start, we recognize the meaning, even if it’s a bit heavy-handed. Lively is very good in a movie where she appears in nearly every scene, and carries the story with conviction. However, there are issues.
While the film steers clear of narration, it does one worse by having Nancy speak far too much, all in expositional language. Part of this is accomplished by giving her a ‘Wilson’ for the one day she is on the out-cropping. Wilson, you’ll recall, was the volleyball turned companion for Tom Hank‘s character Chuck Noland in 2001’s Cast Away. Here, it is a wounded seagull. Unable to fly, it is stuck on the same little island as Nancy, and so provides her with something to talk to (She even calls it Steven, a not so subtle nod to the master). It’s a crucial mistake (the talking, not the bird) as it believes the audience won’t be able to follow along, even in a story as hopelessly simple as this. It’s distracting and lessens the impact of what the rest of the film works hard to produce, that of a taut, exciting thriller.
This filmmakers also clearly love their star, who is photographed in her golden orange bikini with cover-girl angles from the very start, and while Lively is an attractive young woman, there is something weirdly uncomfortable with lingering shots on her flesh that seem to entice one emotion while we should be experiencing another. That said, the movie is a extremely well-photographed with lush, captivating cinematography by Flavio Martínez Labiano, who has worked with Collet-Serra a number of times before. Collet-Serra also knows how to shoot action, and creates nice moments of tension. But it’s a bit over-indulgent and reveals too much, not knowing when it would have worked better with less.
A better than expected thriller, The Shallows proves two things: a) the shark movie still has some bite in the right hands and b) it could have been better. Fans looking for Sharknado-esque moments of gruesome gore will be disappointed, but there’s still a lot to like and Lively deserves credit for keeping it grounded. Swim at your own risk.
Movie description: A young women travels to a secret beach where her mother came when she was pregnant. While she discovers a place of infinite beauty, she is not alone. It's The Shallows.
Director(s): Jaume Collet-Serra
Actor(s): Blake Lively, Óscar Jaenada, Brett Cullen