Review: THE SHALLOWS is Tense But Silly B-Movie Chum
Two hundred yards from the shore of a secluded beach, Nancy (Blake Lively) lies bleeding on a rock. She's been bitten by a massive, bloodthirsty shark which stalks the small cove in which she's trapped, and her time is running out. This is the fundamental conflict of The Shallows, director Jaume Collet-Serra's new film that proudly stakes its claim as a modern B-movie.
The quick, lean set-up works well enough. Nancy has left medical school after her mom died of cancer and she's hunting for this Mexican beach because it has particular significance to their relationship (Mom surfed it when she was pregnant with Nancy). Her traveling buddy — who was supposed to be with her — bails on their surfing excursion because the friend is hungover from the night before, which explains why Nancy's alone on the beach. It's also established early on that this is a secret place not many people know about, so when the trouble begins, Nancy can't rely on outside help. She suits up, jumps on her board, and paddles out, meeting a couple of fellow surfers in the process and shredding some tubes (that's a phrase, right?). But when the guys swim to shore and call it a day, Nancy wants to catch one more wave, and that's when she's knocked from her board by a hungry shark who takes a bite out of her leg. Her med school background comes in especially handy as she treats her bite wound, and she's not entirely alone in this ordeal: there's an injured seagull (which she nicknames Steven Seagull) on her rock with her, serving as her own Castaway-esque Wilson that she occasionally talks to in order to verbalize her survival schemes.
Lively is far more convincing talking herself through her perilous situation than she is interacting with any of the other human characters in the movie. I can't just write her off as a bad actress because I think she occasionally shows flashes of steely resolve out on the water, and since she spends most of the movie by herself, I suppose she's actually pretty well cast in this film. Collet-Serra gives her a bunch of opportunities to capitalize on her strengths, and while the script goes off the rails a bunch of times, she's mostly capable of doing what's asked of her.
But let me be clear: this is a deeply silly movie. When Collet-Serra manages to create a nice sense of tension, it's because he plays on the audience's primal fears of what's lurking under the surface of the water. I was never truly concerned for Nancy as a person because writer Anthony Jaswinski did the bare minimum to fill in her backstory; any tension I felt came purely from a sense of empathy, of knowing what sharks are capable of doing to people in real life and a primal sense of not wanting to see that happen to anyone.
As is the case in most of Collet-Serra's other movies, the filmmaking is fine. He uses the same gimmicks you've seen in any other shark movie, but where this one notably fails is its use of music and sound. The soundtrack is totally forgettable, and though an ominous (but equally forgettable) score does eventually kick in, the director makes what I consider to be the worst choice in the movie: he inexplicably chooses to drop out all of the sound for a second or two right before pretty much every attack. This may work for one or two scares, but pretty soon I was trained: as soon as all the sound drops out, you know an attack is imminent. It took me out of the movie and deflated whatever tension he had built up to that moment. I kept thinking he was doing this to set up for a huge third act moment in which he subverted his own pattern, but that sadly wasn't the case.
Aside from the back and forth between Lively and the shark, there's not really much going on in this film. The movie is a pretty simple metaphor for Nancy getting over her mother's death, but there's one moment that aims to do something other than reinforce that central metaphor. When she's trapped on the rock, a guy swims out to try to help her, and she screams at him about the shark and warns him to go back to shore. He keeps swimming toward her and without hesitation yells back something like, "Don't worry, there aren't any sharks in this area!" That felt like the only moment in which anything more than just surface level themes (perseverance, family, etc.) were being explored, when Jaswinski and Collet-Serra were bashing the type of guys who feel compelled to send dismissive "actually" messages to women on Twitter.
Like the story as a whole, the climactic moment is — depending on your generosity as a viewer — simply implausible, gleefully idiotic, or somewhere in between. That's really what it comes down to with The Shallows: what kind of viewer are you? Are you willing to suspend disbelief and embrace the movie's inherent silliness, or will you get hung up on the ludicrousness of it all and only engage with the movie at an arm's length? I walked out of the theater thinking it was pretty bad, but I must admit after thinking about it for a few hours, it's still disappointing and far from a modern classic, but it's also not quite as bad as I thought. I'd love to hear what you think about it if you decide to wade in and check it out.