The idea of Blake Lively (Gossip Girl), in a bikini, fighting a shark, arguably sounds like something a coked-up Hollywood executive would come up with five minutes before a meeting. Yet The Shallows turns out to be a perfectly decent survival thriller, with a few clever wrinkles.
Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra, whose shimmering, cool approach made the horror flick Orphan (2009) something of a must-see, serves up a minor, silly masterpiece with The Shallows. Without an ounce of body fat on its script, the timing for this refreshing splash couldn't be better, coming as it does during a deadening summer of flabby sequels.
Nancy (Lively), photographed in a golden filtered haze, bums a lift from an unseen Mexican resort to a 'secret' beach. Her travelling companion has stayed behind, having quaffed demasiado tequila the night before. The beach is off the beaten path, but Nancy has a number of pictures dated 1991 of her equally athletic looking mother at the very same spot.
"Mom's beach?" Nancy's little sister asks via a FaceTime chat, a cleverly shot but mercilessly short bit of exposition. Nancy's catchup with home informs us that she is a medical school dropout struggling with the recent death of her mother. Home is Galveston, Texas, which means she can be both a heartland of America sweetheart as well as a demon on a surfboard. Her medical background ensures we buy it when she tears at her wetsuit to create a tourniquet or uses her necklace as a suture.
That is needed because there is something more treacherous than gnarly wipeouts or stinging coral in these waters – a huge, hungry shark. But before the nasty beast shows its teeth, we get ample footage of Nancy on cloud nine and hanging 10 in this quiet cove. When two nice locals say adios for the night, she stays behind to catch a few more waves. The remainder of the picture is of her figuring out how to survive when there is a killer fish separating her from safety.
After the initial attack, Nancy spends most of her time strategising on a rock that just so happens to have a perfectly hollowed out middle for her lie in, looking for all the world like a wounded Greek siren. The camera photographs her above the water, under the water, through the water and with her legs wrapped around a dead and bleeding whale. It is an all-or-nothing performance and the movie certainly doesn't shy from embracing the very physical nature of the scenario.
What begins with arguably unnecessary early cleavage shots, soon turns to gasping and cringing as our leading lady suffers increasingly ferocious setbacks. It is a film where you simply have to jump right in, get your head wet and take the movie on its own terms.
The Shallows is a film begging for you to shout back at the screen, and while the premise is ridiculous, it is anything but dumb. Each step has an internal logic, shot in a clear and visually arresting manner.
Collet-Serra has reteamed with cinematographer Flavio Martínez Labiano (Non-Stop) to deliver beautifully shot action sequences with plenty of smart visuals, including text messages that pop up in mid-air and an early, dread inducing glimpse of the killer fish in silhouette as it glides through a wave on which our heroine is surfing. There fair amount of humour too, thanks to the deadpan reaction shots of Lively's scene partner, a wounded seagull.
While the big finish arguably drifts into typical action hokum – complete with a fairly unconvincing CG beast – the conclusion itself ends on a touching note, without ever forcing the issue, as in the multiple Academy Award® winner Gravity (2013). This isn't to compare Lively's performance with Sandra Bullock's, but there are ample similarities between the two films in their exaggerated energy and go-for-broke simplicity.
What could have been mere summertime chum is actually one of the more cleverly constructed B-movies in quite some time.