The Shallows (2016)

Spiders, snakes, and sharks; these are probably my three biggest animal-related fears.  Luckily, I don’t come into contact with snakes and sharks frequently, and, living in Maine, most of the spiders that cross my path are not very harmful, though they still give me the willies.  Sharks are fascinating creatures though.  I remember finding a book in my elementary school library all about them that was full of pictures and information about them.  Jaws is one of my favorite films, and it is so effective that as a kid I could remember occasionally getting spooked in the water at a lake or even in a swimming pool.  Of course, actually being in or on the ocean can be great, but there is a vulnerability to swimming in the ocean that is always at the back of my brain.  Being in water is not man’s natural habitat, and it’s a vast ocean, and one person is very small by comparison.  All of this hopefully helps to put you in my headspace for when I went to see The Shallows, a shark movie that caught my attention when I first saw the previews earlier this year.

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Blake Lively portrays Nancy, a woman who has left med school and is traveling after the recent loss of her mother to cancer.  Her mom took a trip of her own when she was only a few months pregnant with Nancy, and Nancy is recreating that trip and visiting the same places her mom visited.  One of these is a secluded, nameless beach in Mexico that features a crop of islands in the background that resemble a mother giving birth, with her head and belly sticking out of the water.  Ecstatic to have finally found the place, Nancy, an enthusiastic surfer, unloads her gear, thanks her driver, a local named Carlos, and dives into the water. She makes acquaintances with two local surfers already in the water.  After a day of surfing, she goes out one last time to catch a few more waves, and notices something a little further out, which turns out to be the bloated, floating carcass of a whale that has drifted into the shallow cove of the beach.  Heading back to the shore on a wave, a shark, attracted by the whale carcass, knocks her into the water and takes a bite of her leg, forcing her to find safety on a crop of rocks 200 yards from the shore and beginning a test of wills between her and the shark.

The film features a very small cast.  Lively is the only real main character.  She has brief interactions with the local driver, the two surfers, her sister and father via Facetime, and a drunk man on the shore at one point.  The scope of the film is zeroed in right on Nancy and her struggle to survive, and the shark and its persistence.  This keeps the runtime of the film to a tight 87 minutes too.  And the film does not waste any of that time.

Lively gives a really impressive performance as Nancy.  It’s both an emotional performance and a physical performance.  While on the rock formation, there’s a seagull with a wounded wing on it with her that becomes her de facto friend through this ordeal.  The fact that she was in med school comes in handy when she is forced to make a tourniquet for her leg, and later to take further steps to stem the bleeding.  Her medical training allows her to disassociate from the pain, as much as possible, and treat herself as her own patient.  None of this feels forced or contrived, for the most part.  She also looks the part of a surfer, and its believable that she could be a medical student.

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Naturally, Lively is beautiful and looks great in a swimsuit, but equally beautiful is the location.  Film in Australia as a stand-in for Mexico, the beach and cove where this film takes place is absolutely breathtaking at times.  There are some great underwater visuals and some great surfing action shots too.  There are also plenty of moments with the shark that can make you jump and freak you out.  The film does a good job of making this a battle of wills between the two.  And the script adds in enough aspects to make the stakes matter, to keep the tension tight most of the time, and keep the audience uncomfortable in their seats.

Where the film comes up short though, is in the ending.  Things get ramped up, and the film can’t help itself in going for a “Smile, you son of a bitch!” moment which leads to an ending that is a little over the top.  It’s a little unfortunate, because most of what precedes the climax is effective, but the ending squanders some of that effective build-up.

The Shallows is a small action thriller from director Jaume Collet-Serra (Non-Stop) about a woman in a battle of will against a shark.  Of all of the options available at the box office this summer, it is one of the few that is not a sequel or a big blockbuster.  While it is not wholly original, owing a bit of creative spark to Jaws (like every other shark movie since 1975), it is a pretty good summer viewing experience thanks to the performance of Blake Lively and the tension it pulls off with the shark lurking.  It’s definitely worth checking out.

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Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

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