Directed by: Jaume Collet-Serra.
Written by: Anthony Jaswinski.
Starring: Blake Lively (Nancy), Óscar Jaenada (Carlos), Brett Cullen (Father), Sedona Legge (Chloe).
Horror films are probably the most personal genre in film – in the way that you cannot always rationally describe what makes some horror films scary, and some not, to different people. For example, while I can appreciate a good ghost story in film – and they can scare me in the moment, they usually do not end up haunting my dreams, simply because I don’t believe in ghosts (the exception is Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining – the greatest horror film ever made, and of course, it may not be a ghost story at all). However, even the lamest of home invasion horror films will scare the crap out of me – especially since I became a father. Something about someone invading my home – the place where I should be the safest – scares me to death, and these films (like the French film Ils or the underrated The Strangers) stay with me for years after I have seen them. Another example, which dates back to my childhood when I saw Steven Spielberg’s Jaws way too young, is shark movies. I was scared my entire childhood of being eaten by a shark – even when I was in a swimming pool, and I knew that fear was completely irrational. It’s a fear that has never left me – which is probably why I enjoy cheesy films like Deep Blue Sea (1999) so much, and why the low budget Open Water (2003) remains one of the scariest films of the new millennium so far.
Jaume Collet-Serra’s The Shallows is actually kind of a combination between those two films – it has some of Open Water’s paranoia, trapping one person (in Open Water it was two, but still), in one location, chased by shark (or sharks) for its entire running time, but it has some of the big budget cheese of Deep Blue Sea – an obviously CGI shark, bloody deaths, and an unlikely climax that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but damn if it isn’t fun.
Like many films of this kind, the film opens with idyllic beauty – a young woman, Nancy (Blake Lively) is on vacation in Mexico, and wants to go surfing at the same hidden beach her mother did 25 years ago when she found out she was pregnant with her. The movie gives Nancy more backstory than she needs – about death and giving up and yada yada yada, apparently because the film believes you won’t believe the fight Nancy puts up without that backstory – as if simply trying to fight off a giant shark isn’t enough. The beach is isolated – she is dropped off by a helpful stranger, and there are only two other surfers there. As they are packing up to go, Nancy decides to catch one more wave – and makes a mistake. She drifts too far – almost right on top of the bloated, floating corpse of a giant whale – which of course has attracted the attention of a giant shark. Now that she has entered that sharks feeding zone, he’s pissed, and determined to kill her. She is able to get to a rock that will protect her – but only until high tide, and then she’s screwed.
The film runs only 87 minutes, and to be honest, that’s a little long for the film – a 70 minute film could have been leaner and tauter, and perhaps even more terrifying for everything it didn’t show. Part of the Hollywood machine however requires that if you’re going to make a movie about a giant shark, that sharks has to eat some people, so the film throws in a few unnecessary characters basically as chum – and although I admired the way director Jaume Collet-Serra handled those deaths – mainly, he doesn’t belabor them (the first death really is brilliantly handled, and could have worked in a more stripped down version of this story). The weakest moments of the film are when the shark itself is visible as more than just a dorsal fin or a shadow – it’s not an especially convincing CGI creation, especially as the film moves along, and requires more face-to-face interaction with Lively.
For her part, Lively is terrific in the film – the best I’ve ever seen her really. You can be cynical and say she was only cast because of how she looks in a bikini – which is great by the way, or because of her butt – which gets at least as much screen time as her face in the first third of the film, as the camera never misses a chance to lovingly frame it as she paddles out on her surf board, or changes into her wetsuit, etc. Yet, even if that was the reason for her casting, Lively handles everything in this performance amazingly well – this is a physical performance as much as anything, and one that requires her to spend a lot of time by herself, and quiet (the film may have worked even better if she was quiet more – her asides either to herself or to her seagull friend Steven – are mostly unnecessary, and assume the audience will be too dim to get what she’s thinking otherwise). It is a quietly intense performance, and an effective one, that keeps the film afloat, even when it drifts too far into CGI spectacle.
The film did scare me quite a bit – as I said, I am petrified of sharks – even though when I think about it, The Shallows isn’t really a horror film, as much as a survival film – it’s more All is Lost or The Revenant than it is Jaws or Open Water. It is a remarkably simple film – but an effective one. If the filmmakers had simplified it even more, it would have been even better.