Directed by Jaume Collet-Sera
Written by Anthony Jaswinski
Starring Blake Lively
Runtime: 87 minutes
Human vs Nature has been a common framing device for stories since the dawn of storytelling. The theme is perhaps best expressed in the Human vs Shark scenario (unless it’s a Werner Herzog film, then that is the epitome) and since Jaws hit 41 years ago, though interest started to flag around Jaws 3D or Jaws: The Revenge and shark attack movies more or less faded away. One pops up here and there, like Open Water in 2004 and knock-offs like the Piranha movies and now comes The Shallows, a smarter than usual shark attack movie, which isn’t saying a whole lot.
The story starts with American med student Nancy (Blake Lively) in a jeep being taken to a secret Mexican beach where her mother visited just after she learned she was pregnant with Nancy. We learn that her mother has since died of cancer and Nancy is visiting the beach out of…sentimentality? Well, she finds it and proceeds to strip down to her swimsuit and surf with some locals. When they head in, she decides to catch one more wave, wanders out to a dead whale carcass and gets bitten by a shark. Now she’s stuck on a tidal island and has to triage her wound and figure out how to get back to shore, a scant 200 yards away, with a great white shark stalking her.
The script, by Anthony Jaswinski, must have been easy to write after he’d figured out the topography of the beach, as there is not much dialogue in the film, before or after the attack and Nancy is left alone. Jaswinski, a veteran of B-horror films, knows when to ramp up the tension and when to let it slack a bit. He doesn’t spend much time on character, despite the film really only having one person in it, which makes Nancy seem as shallow as the waters she’s surfing. She has a vague identity, a wisp of personality and determination to spare, but we never really get a sense of who she is, beyond biographical information. Jaswinski doesn’t seem too concerned with who she is, but rather what’s happening to her (which is far more plausible than any of the Jaws sequels, she simply wandered into the shark’s hunting grounds and now he’s expanded them). While he is on point with his suspense, there no real reason to care about Nancy and if she lives or dies. Add to that a questionable ending and a sappy, saccharine-soaked epilogue, and we’re not left with much.
That distance can also be attributed to director Jaume Collet-Sera, the Spanish director who made Orphan and the two most recent nonsensical Liam Neeson action pictures (non-Taken), NonStop and Run All Night. He’s got style to spare and creates some genuine tension and suspense, forgoing most of the easy surprise scares in favor of generating terror. One interesting thing Collet-Sera does is when Nancy is looking at her phone, he superimposes the images onto the screen, so we aren’t looking at her phone or looking at her looking at her phone. He makes them look digitized, so they aren’t just pictures floating on the screen. The trouble is that he takes almost 20 minutes of the film’s already sparse runtime to have his camera eye-bang Lively, thus reducing her to an object almost immediately. This makes it very difficult to care about her as a person, thereby removing any stock an audience would have had in her survival. And it’s not the fact that he shoots a beautiful woman in a bikini, it’s that he lingers on her breasts and butt, going into slow motion when she zips up her surfer’s wetsuit jacket and holds on her chest for a few seconds, making this 20 minutes more like a Sports Illustrated Swimsuit video than a feature film. The camera work itself, by cinematographer Flavio Martinez Labiano, a frequent Collet-Sera collaborator, is stunning. Every shot of the Australia-for-Mexico beach is gorgeous.
The primary reason the film works when it does is Lively. She, like her husband Ryan Reynolds, is regularly underestimated and she does good work here. What the audience feels for her and how genuine the tension feels is almost directly a result of Lively’s performance. While she doesn’t bring any particular depth to the character, she does keep viewers rooted in the film and in her struggle to survive. You may not care if she lives, but you are interested in how she tries to stay that way.
The Shallows doesn’t really do anything spectacular or special and it isn’t that good a film, but as one exiting theatergoer said “It’s not terrible” and that is exactly it. It works well enough while the film is going, but isn’t going to be remembered long after it’s over. The suspense and tension are well done and Lively is very good. In the end, however, it’s just a disposable popcorn movie, good for a distraction but little more.