Review: The Shallows
Texan Blake Lively ventures to Mexico to find a beach her dead mother had always talked about. Eventually finding the beach and going out into the water, Lively soon finds herself in danger. There’s no human being within earshot and instead she has a hungry shark for company. The shark soon takes a chomp at her leg, so now she’s bleeding too. It’s not going to be a good day, especially since night is quickly and ominously approaching.
A strong enough genre film from 2016 to overcome a few minor quibbles and disappointingly silly final few minutes, this shark movie from director Jaume Collet-Serra and screenwriter Anthony Jaswinski (something called “Satanic” with Sarah Hyland) proved a lot better than expected.
I don’t find Blake Lively a remotely sympathetic presence on screen, but that ultimately doesn’t end up mattering as much as I thought it would, once the situation is set up. Sure she and the character annoyed the hell out of me within two minutes here, where she spends the entire jeep trip rudely ignoring her driver while she selfishly has her face stuck in her phone the whole time. Once she’s in the water though, and we see what else is in that water with her…you’re too hooked into the danger to remember that you don’t like the actress or the character in danger for the most part. Yeah, a more sympathetic presence would make the film even stronger (and I’m not sure anyone would be dumb enough to be travelling overseas alone), but it still largely works. I’ll admit though that a big to-camera speech near the end was probably meant to move me a lot more than it did. I found both actress and character far too in love with themselves to really get sucked into that moment. Still, by and large the situation still grabs you and the film is an experience where you’re too busy feeling rather than thinking. This girl is in the FUBAR of all FUBAR situations here. I will say one other thing though: If you’re entering the ocean, you my friend are breaking and entering the territory of any marine life there. So my level of sympathy heading into the film was probably a little lesser than many of you. I can still empathise with the basic terror and potential death, though…it’s just that I may not be entirely unsympathetic towards the shark as well. You’re invading its home. Many of you will get even more invested in the film than I, and believe me any gripes I have about the film are pretty minor all things considered. They simply stop a good film from being an even better one.
Although he gave us the subpar remake of “House of Wax”, and the uneven “Orphan” (which at least had one of the greatest twists of all-time), Collet-Serra has proven a strong genre filmmaker with three solid Liam Neeson thrillers to his name in “Unknown”, “Non-Stop”, and “Run All Night” and here he mostly knows what he’s doing. Filmed on location in Queensland and on Lord Howe Island masquerading as Mexico for fuck knows what reason, it’s stunning-looking from moment one. The water is just plain gorgeous, even though I honestly think the film would make even more sense being set in Australia given the notorious shark population in our waters over here. So that was odd and I think it was solely to add a language barrier for thrilling effect, which is a bit unnecessary to me. It’s not just the scenery here, but the way it’s been shot by Flavio Martinez-Labiano (“Unknown”, “Non-Stop”), with some of the best surfing footage I’ve seen in a fictional film to date. Even when dark, the film still manages to look incredibly fucking beautiful. Dangerous, but absolutely beautiful. Meanwhile, the camera placement gets you on edge early on, which is smart filmmaking. Very early on the overhead shots really do set the scene before we know that we even have reason to worry. It’s a big ‘ol body of water, and soon Lively’s gonna realise it’s just her and a shark in it all alone. I assume CGI was used, but Collet-Serra delivers one of the best ‘jump scares’ in years with a dolphin at one point. He clearly understands the role silence and stillness can play in something like this, and having a great cinematographer in tow as well? Awesome. 50 minutes in and we get another effective ‘jump scare’, and while I find it the laziest of all horror tropes, when used sparing and at the right moment it can be effective. Collet-Serra knows what he’s doing, this is a real white-knuckler, no frills just straight-forward terror, white-knuckles and possible sharting. Not me, mind you. I’m just saying somewhere out there someone might shart a little bit. It happens sometimes I’m sure, don’t worry about it. The director gives us some very uncomfortably visceral and wince-inducing moments too. Later on we get an absolutely horrendous moment where Lively inadvertently causes a drunken fool to get eaten in half. It’s all her fault, yet not her fault at all at the same time. It’s just so horrifying to contemplate let alone witness. There’s also a great use of the colour red as well, and a rock-solid score by the underrated Marco Beltrami (“Scream”, “Repo Men”, “Jonah Hex”, “Hellboy”, “Snowpiercer”, “World War Z”). Also, check out the Spanish version of a particular Lou Reed song at the outset of the film. As for the shark, I assumed it was a really convincing practical FX job, but it’s instead a really convincing bit of CGI, but whatever it is, it’s a significant upgrade from Bruce and definitely gets the job done. Like I said, I wasn’t overly enamoured with the finale of the film. I won’t say the tension ever lets up, but boy is it cornball ‘woman in peril, finds inner strength from dead mum’ shit that almost, but not quite undoes the good work here. It’s probably the most ‘Hollywood’ element in the entire film, and helps rob the film of an even better rating.
For the most part this film manages to be very effective stuff in the moment, which is all it is trying to achieve I guess. I have a few minor gripes with the beginning and end of it, but by and large it definitely works for what it is. Some of you will like it even more than I did, especially if you’re fond of Blake Lively. It’s probably just below the similar “Open Water”, which was even more verisimilitudinous.