Stephen Porzio wades in.
The Shallows is an example of a fairly standard and unoriginal genre picture yet manages to be far more entertaining that its premise would suggest. Blake Lively plays Nancy, a Texan surfer, who takes time out of her medical degree to journey to Mexico. Her goal is to discover a secret beach which was of great significance to her recently deceased mother. While surfing close to coast, she happens upon the dead body of a large whale. Without realising, Nancy has stumbled upon a shark’s feeding ground and is subsequently attacked. Close enough to see the shore but not to reach it, our protagonist must leap-frog from the dead whale to a tiny piece of land and then to a buoy in order to stay above water – avoiding her predator. However, with the tide rising and Nancy becoming weak from the scars of the shark’s original onslaught – can Nancy survive?
While sharing a plot similar to various survivalist sea-set thrillers such as Open Water or The Reef, The Shallows still manages to engage due to its stripped back nature. It’s only 86 minutes, meaning the film never drags, delivering tense set-piece after tense set-piece. Also, its script by Anthony Jaswinski (which was included in 2014’s Black List – a list of the best unproduced screenplays), despite being slightly clichéd, is very economical in terms of information and time. There are no superfluous scenes. The audience is given everything they need to know but nothing else, briefly and efficiently, allowing the film to maintain its quick pace while still enabling the viewer to root for the protagonist. It’s also a very funny script, managing to stack the deck against Nancy in more convoluted but enjoyably bizarre ways as it continues.
However, the writer is not the only person worthy of credit. Director Jaume Collet-Serra (whose output is almost entirely entertaining films with average premises) adds a sheen to proceedings. Having worked in both the horror genre (Orphan, House of Wax) and the action genre (Non-Stop, Run All Night), he is the perfect choice to tackle a survivalist thriller. He manages to the convey the horror of Nancy’s situation with great skill as evident by The Shallows sound-mix. While another director would use visual gore to portray our hero’s suffering, Collet-Serra emphasises the loud bangs as Nancy crashes into jagged rocks and stinging coral to create a more visceral experience. His talents as an action director also shine through in his staging of the shark sequences. They manage to be both inventive (a shark-attack seen from the POV of the victim’s GoPro is genius) and coherent. In relation to the latter, one is always aware where Nancy is in relation to her attacker which serves to heighten tension.
Blake Lively (The Town, Green Lantern), who is often type-cast in a bland love interest role, makes for a rather charismatic final girl of sorts. Essentially carrying the movie by herself, she is forced to convey every emotion from joyous optimism upon finding the secret beach, to terror at her situation and then to acceptance of her predicament. Lively is up to the task, even entertaining as she talks to a seagull (hilariously dubbed Steven Seagull) a la Wilson in Cast Away, adding levity. Her performance, a tight script and efficient direction raise The Shallows above its predictable premise, reminding that even serviceable films can be quite good in the right hands.
The Shallows is currently in cinemas