Title: The Shallows
Release Date: June 24th, 2016
Studio: Sony Pictures
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
The Shallows pitches itself as the ultimate summer horror flick. You’ve got the sunlit sands of a mysterious beach, a beautiful heroine rocking a tight bikini, and a formidable, long toothed, great-white foe. It hopes to make sharks terrifying again after they’ve been turned into blood buckets by the Sharknado craze. That’s a tall order, considering that Jaws, the last truly effective shark film, is a permanent mainstay in American culture. Yes, this scrappy horror flick is going to find itself compared to Spielberg’s classic no matter how different it is. In other words, we’re swimming in the deep end here.
The story of The Shallows centers on Nancy (Blake Lively). She’s a runaway med-student on a quest to discover herself after the passing of her mother. On a whim, she ventures to a secret beach in Mexico that her mother loved. At first, she takes to the waves and has a grand old time. However, the tide starts to turn when out of nowhere, a deadly shark starts gobbling up everything in its path. Suffering a nasty leg bite, Nancy manages to take refuge on top of a rock. With almost nothing at her disposal, Nancy begins the most deadly game of Marco Polo ever as she tries to return to land sweet land.
What makes or breaks a bottle horror film like The Shallows is ultimately the person trapped in the bottle. In many ways, these roles are the ultimate gift to an actor, as they by nature combine physicality with emotion. Lively is a revelation in this role, completely and often literally throwing herself into every moment of this film. She has an affable charm that makes her instantly likable, which makes her moments of pain and horror ring true. However, despite spending a significant portion of its runtime beating the every loving crap out of her, the film refuses to make Nancy weak or groveling. She’s resourceful, earthly, and resilient. Lively makes all of those traits sing to create a hero cooler than any recent Marvel or DC tight-barer.
Setting and direction are also key here. Fortunately, director Jaume Collet-Serra is more than up to the challenge. Having been stuck in the Liam Neeson action flick pool for three movies in a row, Serra relishes in every moment to make something more scaled back. His crisp, direct style is tailor made for this material. Taking full advantage of his space, he initially paints the beach and ocean as expansive and inviting and then makes it feel cold and contained. He also ensures that every scrape, bite, and snap is felt through fantastic sound design and gore effects.
Where things do falter a bit is in the execution of the creatures. While the shark is certainly a formidable presence, it’s also a bit cartoonish. In fact, it at times seems borderline super-powered, often acting a bit too strategically to be authentic.There’s also a subplot in which Nancy befriends a seagull who is also injured on the rock, who she even names Stephen Seagull. Obviously, it’s a bit cheesy even in comparison to everything else. There are several moments where the filmmakers might as well put subtitles under his squawks so that we can be as in tune with him as Lively. Neither of these creatures sinks The Shallows by any means, but they do occasionally dull its edges.
The intensity level also slips a bit in the third act. Throughout most of the film, Sera picks the moments for the shark to attack very carefully. Sure, the shark is a constant threat but it is not taking over the film. Things are very methodical and character focused. However, once it is time for the final battle, all of that sophistication flies right out of the window. Any sense of realism is given up to have a crazy action sequence with Lively climbing up and down a buoy with some major cartoon physics. It goes from a horror film to a road runner cartoon, which is a bit disappointing considering how grounded the rest of the film is.
Even with some of it’s more goofy affectations, The Shallows perfectly embodies what a summer midnight horror movie should be. Serra keeps the tension and fast pacing paddling along for the entirety of the lean runtime, and there are several truly startling spills to behold. However, it is Lively who is the real reason to check this film out. Her fantastic performance here will hopefully be a game changer for her career as it seems that she has great potential as both a matinee star and a thespian. It’s certainly nothing that will be iconic twenty years from now, but in a pool of lukewarm summer sequels and half-baked adaptations, it may as well be a crisp, refreshing hot-tub.
Characters: Nancy makes for a fantastic protagonist. Even in the moments when her intelligence may falter, she’s still highly empathetic and down to earth. The other characters are very minor, and not really worth mentioning.
Cinematography: While it occasionally veers into music video territory, this is a beautiful looking film. It uses its confined setting to fantastic effect, making Nancy’s watery trap feel both claustrophobic and endless at the same time.
Story: This is a very straightforward survival movie. In a summer where so many movies feel the need to be convoluted to set up 100 films, something simple and effective really hits the spot.
Acting: Blake Lively is absolutely brilliant here. She throws herself completely into the physical moments while grounding everything in very authentic emotion.
- Blake Lively's amazing performance.
- Serra's direction and management of the tone.
- Some top-notch scares.
- Fun action sequences.
- Creatures are a bit silly.
- Supporting characters are weak.
- Third act goes into full on cartoon territory.