Written by: Anthony Jaswinski
Directed by: Jaume Collet-Serra
Starring: Blake Lively, Óscar Jaenada, and Brett Cullen
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
What was once in the deep is now in the shallows.
Like a lifeboat to a man in danger of drowning at sea, The Shallows arrives as the first “real” shark movie effort (read: not an ironically made, intentionally bad piece of shit) in nearly five years. While it seems unfairly disproportionate that we only get one per every two dozen (or so—rough estimate), I can almost tolerate it since it’s resulted in Jaume Collet-Serra’s return to the horror genre after serving a seven-year stint as the guy who makes (mostly) good Lian Neeson action vehicles. It’s a triumphant enough return for a director who has sneakily become one of our most reliable genre filmmakers, particularly when it comes to gimmick thrillers and preposterous premises.
There’s a little bit of both in The Shallows, a movie that almost feels like some kind of bet or challenge Collet-Serra took on just because he fucking can. Basically, he’s tasked with spinning a compelling movie out of a single location, a girl, and a killer shark, the latter two being the two most crucial elements to any movie in my opinion, with all due respect to Godard. Specifically, he’s tasked with staging a battle of survival between Blake Lively and a great white shark, a premise that almost demands snark. In a world filled with Sharknadoes and its ilk, even this seems kind of absurd—that’s how poisoned this well has become, basically. A lesser filmmaker may have indulged this impulse and played up the inherent silliness. You know, like every other killer shark movie you’ve seen lately.
But if there’s one thing Collet-Serra has made abundantly clear during his career, it’s that nothing is too outlandish to be treated seriously, and The Shallows is no different. This is obvious early on, when there’s a bare minimum effort at grounding the film in character moments: Lively is something of an actual person here in the role of Nancy Adams, a med school student struggling with her aspirations after her mother’s death. For a spiritual retreat, she’s sought out the secluded beach her mother once frequented, where Nancy intends to surf away her troubles. It’s a fine idea until she suddenly finds herself several yards from the shore, and her only company is a gutted whale’s corpse and the great white shark that’s circling her.
Collet-Serra does a fantastic job of establishing just how harrowing this situation is. Not only does the script continually highlight Nancy’s mounting isolation (her friend ditches her, some fellow surfers leave the beach, etc.), but the camera also emphasizes the eerie desolation surrounding her. Wide shots from Nancy’s point-of-view reveal her impossible distance from the shore, while overhead shots reinforce the expansiveness of a deceptively gorgeous sea. Nearly every shot that unfolds just after the shark gashes open Nancy’s leg seems to coax an “oh shit” from the audience. As you watch her stagger up onto a rock (which will eventually be swallowed by the tide, leaving her helpless) and dress her gnarly, vicious wound, you can’t help but wonder how she’ll survive the ordeal.
Likewise, you wonder how Collet-Serra will paint his way out of a corner that sees him tasked with hanging out with Blake Lively on a rock in the middle of the ocean. Not that I ever doubted him, but there’s a moment when you realize just how threadbare this premise is before he sets out to wringing out all its suspenseful, gory potential. If there’s any way the film can be reasonably compared to Jaws, it’s in Collet-Serra’s early treatment of the shark as more of an unseen presence that’s felt more than seen. Menacing underwater shots and fleeting glimpses build a mounting dread that explicitly surfaces when the script maneuvers a few hapless victims into the shark’s path, moments that allow the film to bare its schlocky, flesh-filled teeth. The Shallows is perhaps unexpectedly squirm-worthy in this respect, particularly whenever the camera lingers on Nancy’s ghastly leg, which is threatened by encroaching gangrene.
Speaking of threats, addressing the elephant—or great white shark, I guess—in the room is necessary: a film like The Shallows is going to live and die by how effectively it depicts its monster, whether it be via practical or digital effects. Obviously, it relies on more of the latter, but it’s hardly alarming since this is among the most convincing shark effect in recent memory, if not the most convincing ever outside of Open Water. In fact, some of the dodgier CGI doesn’t involve the shark at all—there’s one especially egregious instance of digital face replacement that’s more jarring than anything this shark does. Truly, The Shallows provides evidence that nobody has an excuse for poor shark effects anymore, provided they have any sort of budget (and, if they don’t, maybe they shouldn’t bother).
Collet-Serra’s ability to craft this premise into an effective genre exercise is hardly surprising: at times, it feels like he’s just flexing his chops when he stages harrowing attack sequences (one captured from a Go-Pro camera is especially thrilling). What’s more surprising is how effectively he underpins it with a human element: Lively (along with her stunt double, surely) is game for enduring the daunting physical punishment (Nancy is really put through hell between the craggy rocks, the stinging coral, and the shark), and her plucky, amiable personality keeps her from simply serving as potential shark bait. In what feels like another absurd wrinkle, she even develops an honest-to-god relationship with a seagull (eventually named and credited as Steven Seagull) that’s been stranded with her after the shark attack.
The affecting, completely convincing bond that develops between these two might be the greatest testament to Collet-Serra’s skill as a master filmmaker. You never see it coming, yet it’s something of a lynchpin that keeps The Shallows from degenerating into another dumb shark movie. Okay, maybe it is kind of a dumb (or, at the least, kind of silly) shark movie, but you’d never know it by its director’s treatment of it: he doesn’t have his tongue planted in his cheek, nor does he wink at the audience. He’s completely invested in it, and that sincerity is infectious: once he goes all-in with the frenzied climax, you can’t help but be swept up in it yourself. You can’t generate suspense if you don’t care at least a little bit about the characters—even if it’s a damn bird with a broken wing—so I find it hard to say The Shallows doesn’t work.
If I’m being honest, I wish it were just a bit more silly, given Collet-Serra’s reputation. Don’t get me wrong, the climax has its moments: at one point, it threatens to become Day of the Animals at Sea, and the final showdown between Nancy and the shark features some ridiculous imagery. Collet-Serra even seems to by coyly aware of this genre’s expectations when he introduces a flare gun, only to kind of humorously dispose it by having the shark shrug it off. The eventual method of dispatch is much more wickedly clever, perhaps right up there with Roy Scheider electrocuting a shark to death.
It’s all suitably ridiculous, though there’s a nagging sense that Collet-Serra doesn’t go all the way. Arguably, it’s more evidence of his skill as a schlock filmmaker: perhaps he knows it’s best to tread right up to the cresting wave of absurdity without plunging all the way into ludicrous camp, so he opts for a bit of a cloying, corny denouement instead. If anything, it’s completely sincere, and beggars certainly can’t be choosers with this particular genre. The Shallows might not reach the delirious heights of Orphan, but it solidifies Collet-Serra’s rightful place as the inheritor of David R. Ellis’s mantle as our premiere junk filmmaker.
Some might be wrongfully tempted to call it “elevated genre” when it’s actually anything but that: his work is genre fare distilled to its purest form and sharply executed. It’s well-done schlock that doesn’t condescend with glib self-awareness, and I hope Collet-Serra delivers it for years to come. If for whatever reason he doesn’t, I’ll be forever grateful for The Shallows, a rare killer shark movie that’s gorgeously shot, intense, riotously entertaining, and not a complete embarrassment to the genre.
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