‘The Shallows’ works until the script drowns in the last act
Directed by: Jaume Collet-Serra
Starring: Blake Lively, Oscar Jaenada
“The Shallows” (2016) – In March 2016, I joined my brother’s family on their Florida vacation, and we took in many of the sights that Walt Disney World has to offer, but we spent one day at New Smyrna Beach on the Atlantic-side, just south of Daytona. My brother and my 9 year-old niece were the only ones (of us) swimming in the ocean, but I noticed that they would continually rush in and then rush out of the water. When they finally returned to “home base” – which was our collection of sprawled out beach towels - I asked him if they had fun.
“Jeff, every time I was waist deep in the water, my daughter pleaded with me to move to dry land or the sharks would eat me. This went on for an hour. Oh, it was great,” my brother sarcastically laughed.
Well, after sitting through “The Shallows”, I can categorically state that my 9 year-old niece will not be watching this movie anytime soon, and for two reasons. One, a shark terrorizes an unsuspecting surfer (Blake Lively) for most of the film’s 1 hour 27 minute runtime. Given my niece’s apprehension for these predators, the first reason is obvious. Second, the movie devolves into cartoonish lunacy in its last act, in which the shark in question seemingly develops a personal vendetta against the surfer (Lively). You see, my suspension of disbelief sometimes drowns when movie animals attempt to settle humanlike scores with human antagonists.
Even though the film’s final 20 minutes fall apart for me, the first hour and seven minutes clearly work.
“The Shallows” stars Ms. Lively, and although her figure is suited for a bikini wardrobe in a surfing movie, she certainly has the acting chops to carry a film, and in this case, she spends almost the entire picture alone on the big screen. Director Jaume Collet-Serra sets up a small, personal story in which Nancy (Lively) travels to Mexico to surf at a gorgeous beach, a place where her mother discovered she was pregnant with her 25 years ago. Everything about this isolated, sandy cove – actually filmed in Australia – feels rich with beauty and wonder. It seems like a perfect spot for surfing or just soaking up some rays, and Collet-Serra and cinematographer Flavio Martinez Labiano gloriously capture this wonderland like a surfing documentary. When Nancy paddles towards the massive waves facing her, she purposely dives underneath the incoming tides, and the camera follows her underneath the surface and then on top of the water on the other side. In addition, Collet-Serra films Nancy from overhead, and many of these pre-surfing and surfing moments take your breath away on the big screen.
This trip in paradise, however, falls prey to a shark who snacks on a dead whale carcass about 500 yards from the beach, and Nancy inadvertently swims into its saltwater crosshairs. In a fight to survive, she finds some refuge in the cove but is stranded hundreds of yards from safety. The narrative turns into a figurative cat and mouse game, and Lively sells Nancy’s terror like a beer salesman at a Cleveland Browns football game. In other words, we buy it. The shifty and nifty camerawork further induces fear, as the audience collectively lifts their feet to avoid many shark bites which plainly do not exist in an air-conditioned movie theatre.
“The Shallows” initially works because we like Nancy and then feel real sympathy for her. Her situation feels plausible. She is alone in this precarious deathtrap, and Lively’s on-camera skills humanize her character. She refers to a lonely seagull with a damaged wing as “Steven Seagull”, emotionally records a last video conversation for her family and taps into a spiritual connection with her mother, and all of it leads the audience towards our on-going support.
Unfortunately, and as previously mentioned, the movie falls apart when – who knows - writer Anthony Jaswinski, perhaps, did not know how to end the film and decided to give the shark “super skills” to up the thriller-ante. In the last 20 minutes, some laws of physics and reason are tossed overboard, as the film turns into a twisted mosh of woman vs. shark. This movie – which previously felt authentic – now becomes a “Fast & Furious 7” (2015) car chase sequence, and the narrative loses all of its built-up credibility. It is disappointing, because the first hour truly offers plenty of shark-induced scares with carefully crafted tension.
Now, I suppose if my niece does stumble upon - and watch – this film without her parents’ knowledge, they (and/or I) should just inform her that there is no reason to be frightened. It’s just a movie. Then again, my sister-in-law did a Google search after our trip and told me that New Smyrna Beach is also known as “The Shark Bite Capital of the World”.
Um, I guess my niece’s warnings last March were rightly justified. Do me a favor…please don’t mention it to her. (2/4 stars)
Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.