Movie Review: The Shallows.
The phrase “best shark movie in a decade” sadly does not carry as much weight as it used to.
I had a lot of hope for summer shark thriller The Shallows. Given the atrocious state of “man/woman vs. shark(/megashark/sharktopus/sharknado, etc.) you would think the bar is set pretty low lately. You would be right. Unfortunately, Jaws keeps reminding us how amazing this match-up can be. Comparisons to that classic (and the slightly lesser sequel) keep hopes high that we may finally see another great shark movie in our lifetimes. I can’t quite tell if The Shallows actually aspires to that level of prestige. It has good moments and dumb moments, great visuals and trashy visuals, and a solid premise that gets muddled towards the middle. The Shallows is a silly serious shark movie, or a serious silly shark movie. It’s complicated.
The Shallows (2016)
Blake Lively plays Nancy, a pre-med student who is trying to escape her life. Her faith in medicine is shaken by the cancer death of her mother. She heads to a secluded South American beach where her mother frequented before she was born. She hopes the idyllic setting will help her reconnect with her motivations, and ease the pain of her loss.
Staying past the recommended curfew in order to be alone on the waves with her memories, she comes across the grizzly remains of a whale caught on the corral reef protecting the cove. She quickly discovers that this paradise is the feeding spot of a wounded great white shark, and that she is the only item left on the menu this far from his natural hunting grounds. A two day battle of wills begins between the two as Nancy is trapped on the corral, separated from the beach by the roaming predator.
Beginning the Game
Director Jaume Collet-Serra knows the thriller genre, and he deftly sets the stage for this drama. Found footage, in-screen texts to Nancy’s phone, and subtle dialogue quickly get the audience up to speed. He sets the chess-board and explains the movements of the pieces in an efficient manner. Every little bit of information becomes relevant at one point or another, and he establishes running motifs with a gentle touch. He educates without lecturing, and it is a welcome tactic in a genre that either shouts its premise in the audiences face or neglects to have one altogether.
I cringed when the first scene had a young boy find a go-pro camera. Found footage, oh crap. Collet-Serra has a bit of fun with the convention, and nimbly moves between the boy watching and the actual action. The quality of the camera work is excellent, here and throughout. He also overlays Nancy’s phone on several scenes in a novel manner. It’s such an elegant technique for getting multi-media seamlessly into a shot that I’m shocked it’s not already a convention. Expect to see more of it in the future. Overall the cinematography is strong, with a few hiccups where the CG shark or other animals look funky.
Calm After the Storm
Having set the table, the feeding quickly begins. The music cues are a touch heavy-handed, but Collet-Serra teases us with false positives enough that you begin to get lulled into a rhythm, perfect for setting up a first attack. Unfortunately that first strike is not terribly memorable. The movie certainly has better, so it is disappointing that the director did not lead with a stronger scene. It suffices to get our heroine battered and bloody and stuck on various perches which she must thread between in order to avoid the shark, each becoming harder to reach as the tide comes in and her strength fades. The strength of the tension fades faster, as the film bogs down for the first night.
There is an intermission from the action that kills the pace of the movie. As Nancy hides on her island and becomes delirious, we start to see the cracks in the premise. Nancy must face obstacles other than the shark for this film to avoid feeling wrote, but there’s no plausible way for her to fight these obstacles. She can’t pluck her way out of dehydration, bootstrap her way past exposure, or tough her way through severe blood loss. The forces of nature pretty much have her dead to rights, and it starts to feel ridiculous that she’s still in the fight. Blake Lively gives a game performance and is believable early, it is the situations themselves that make it hard to swallow.
Jumping, Shooting, and Ramming the Shark
The long night also makes the lack of character interaction into a liability. This film is one woman vs. one shark (plus one adorable seagull that doesn’t help much.) There’s not much room to maneuver, literally and figuratively. I like a tough protagonist, but it has be at least somewhat believable. If the Alien had bit a chunk out of Ripley and then chased her up a tree for two days without any supplies, that movie would have been boring…and ridiculous if she went on to win. This slow period makes the hectic third act all the more implausible.
The final act has all the action you could want (and actually has some great shark attacks since the film finally decides to add a few more people for the shark to munch.) It just goes way overboard, into B-movie territory. It sets you up for a mostly realistic scenario and then starts to jettison the realism. OK, maybe she is both lucky and smart and staves off her physical trauma for a night. There’s no way in hell she manages the aquatic feats she then goes on to do to win. I don’t like a freshly fed Michael Phelps’ chance against a shark, let alone a half-dead surfers’.
OK, OK. It’s a shark movie that isn’t realistic. Not surprising. Is it at least scary, exhilarating, or fun? Only sorta. There’s one or two great scenes with the shark, but at least three really ridiculous ones. There are a few good scares, but several flops and quite a few telegraphed moments that don’t connect. One scene uses an iconic riff on a memorable Jaws moment that was satisfying, but you really have to strain your suspension of disbelief for it to work as intended. The end is pretty exhilarating, but once again relies on you shutting your logic center down.
The Shallows does a good deal right, but also some key things wrong. It sets up a tight thriller, but opts instead to become an action horror movie, throwing out its hard fought realism for popcorn thrills. There’s a lot that is lovely, and a bit that is thrilling, but the end product is just a better than average shark movie. If you like current shark movies, this one is going to be your go-to film of the season. Just maybe pop in Jaws afterwards to remind yourself what you could be getting instead.