This solid and effective survival thriller may not be Jaws, but it delivers quite well the thrills it aims for and has an exciting climax
The Shallows (2016)
Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra. Written by Anthony Jaswinski. Starring Blake Lively.
Jaume Collet-Serra is one of those unimaginative directors who have never written anything of their own but are always hired by studios to direct forgettable projects. A quick look at his filmography and you find atrocities like House of Wax (2005) and Orphan (2009) as well as three collaborations with Liam Neeson: the lame Unknown (2011) and the barely decent efforts Non-Stop (2014) and Run All Night (2015). Nothing remarkable, even if his direction is usually competent despite the silly scripts he ends up with (except for the dreadful work he did in Orphan; I doubt he was even trying there). In the case of The Shallows, he does put some effort into it, and the result is effective for a movie that is more about its direction than anything else.
Starring Blake Lively as a typical one-person survival thriller, The Shallows takes place in a secluded beach in Mexico where Nancy (Lively) travels to from Galveston, Texas following the connection that her mother used to have with the place. Now, her mother has recently died of cancer and Nancy is a medical student who has been wanting to drop out of college ever since. What she seeks is only surfing and peace in this beautiful, paradisal place, but things soon become a nightmare when a great white shark attacks her and she is left stranded on a rock two hundred yards from the shore. With no one around to save her, she will have to find a way to survive and escape before the high tide returns and she becomes food for the ruthless animal.
Beginning The Shallows with a tense scene shot on GoPro camera that doesn’t hide that there is something to fear in those waters, Collet-Serra takes his time to build a menacing feel. He is not in a hurry and knows that the waiting can be more nerve-racking than jumping straight to action. Actually, it is funny that he tries hard to be stylish in most of his movies and likes to show off with his camera, but what he does looks more natural this time. I love how he shows us what Nancy sees on her phone by making the images and photos pop up in big scale on our screen, as well as the dynamic way he shoots the surf scenes with the use of slow motion, breathtaking aerial shots of the gorgeous sea and the exploding sound of huge waves crashing down.
Flavio Laviano’s cinematography is stunning, by the way, especially in a scene that takes place in the dark of night, while the makeup job to create the bite wound on Nancy’s leg is realistic enough to make us cringe in agony just by looking at it. To elevate the tension even more, Collet-Serra knows how to explore the “countdown” factor by occasionally reminding us of the time left before the high tide is back. He also has a good sense of geography and lets us have a clear idea of the distance between Nancy and the shore. But the best thing is how he extracts an excellent, visceral performance from Blake Lively who, like Sandra Bullock, is a beautiful actress that can surprise us with her charisma and (rarely seen) talent when well directed.
And Lively proves that to us in a scene in which the shark attacks a guy and we get to see only her reaction in close-up, not the attack itself. It is not easy to draw drama from her, but she does the best she can to show her character fighting her way out of a rock and a hard place with the use of her brains and medical knowledge. In fact, she is good enough to make us overlook how thin the plot actually is and how it doesn’t seem to care about the small details, like Nancy’s cellphone connection working so perfectly in that remote place or the real importance of that camera that she tries so hard to catch. It doesn’t matter, really, and I do like how disturbing it is that someone would joke about killing a woman in the middle of nowhere.
With a great score by Marco Beltrami and competent special effects to create the shark (although the dolphins in CGI look terrible, I must say), this solid thriller is not Jaws (1975), of course, but it delivers quite well the thrills it aims for with an exciting climax. It is a pity that it tries to sound profound in the end and have a “message,” or something of the sort. The Shallows is, after all, a survival film in the most classical way, so why not, right? But that isn’t important, not when Collet-Serra makes it so entertaining. And the one sure thing I can say is that this is his best movie in years (or should I say ever?), though I’m afraid that isn’t saying much really.