The Shallows is the type of film usually reserved for actors wanting to make a statement. Not necessarily a pronounced one, but one that gives them a certain kind of credibility. A credibility that aims to show they can carry a film completely on their own. Blake Lively strives for this in The Shallows, but this isn’t a new concept. Tom Hanks did this for Cast Away. James Franco for 127 Hours. Hell, this even mirrors what Ryan Reynolds did in Buried, which took place entirely in a coffin Reynolds was trapped in. Here, Lively is trapped on the shallow part of a beach, mainly on a rock trapped by a swimming shark. We’re with Lively the entire time as she struggles to stay alive, swimming for her life as this natural predator swims after her. So, it’s crucial that her character feel sympathetic and worth seeing rise out of that predicament.
Luckily, The Shallows manages to do so with an efficient sense of economic storytelling. We get just enough backstory for Lively’s character to get behind her decision – as silly as it really is – to surf this private beach alone. Lively is at least motivated by a desire to come closer to her mother after her death by visiting this paradise, a connection destroyed by a primal element of nature that shatters her hopes of finding a connection she’s now lost. Instead, she connects with nature in a grueling way. Lively inhabits everything needed for The Shallows, managing to make up for general storytelling shortcomings that are abound for a film focused on one character with a genuine sense of emotional tension and fear for her life. Even when she has to spout lines of dialogue that are clearly there for audience members unable to get the basic concepts of visual storytelling like “Somebody got you” when she sees a hook in the shark’s mouth. Lively makes the stream of consciousness thought process and thinking out loud seem natural, even as she’s talking to her lone companion of a seagull.
Of course, Lively’s true costar in The Shallows is her predator shark, roaming the ocean floor. Director Jaume Collet-Serra clearly heavily uses CG to craft this looming shark, but has the sense to pull a Steven Spielberg and only show the shark when it’s necessary. We don’t need to see the shark lunge at the screen as it during the opening Go Pro footage. A simple fin zooming by Blake Lively is more than enough for us to get the threat. When the shark is shown head on, it’s not the best CG work out there. Yet, there’s still an animalistic instinct that carries in how the creature is rendered. When he viscerally chomps at her, one can see the jerky urge to eat in every movement. Even as The Shallows gets incredibly ridiculous territory with its ending, the moment manages to feel earned because we’ve grown attached to Lively’s plight and been genuinely terrified of this shark’s presence thanks to the tension Collet-Serra built up over this 86 minute running time.
Many have attempted to compare The Shallows to Jaws because it involves a shark attack. It’s natural, given that 98% of shark movies that have come in the last 40 or so years are trying to replicate the intense fear that still protrudes from that classic. It’s something The Shallows is aware of, but takes a much more directly disturbing attitude towards this shark attacking Lively. In that more contained way, The Shallows is more of an action heavy take on Open Water, allowing Lively to be an action hero while striving to survive. For all of the clumsiness abound, The Shallows earns a spot as one of the few solid shark films to come out in the wake of Jaws. Then again, when your competition involves the sequels to Jaws, it’s not that much of a competition.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Broken Seagull Wings