(M) Blake Lively
To be honest, in a cinema season of remakes, sequels and comic-book films, it’s just refreshing to see a film that is original. Although The Shallows does owe a debt to Jaws and its many copycats, it is a lean and energetic survival-thriller that is simple storytelling at its most primal — human versus beast.
Let’s be clear though: while The Shallows is about a person being tormented by a shark, it isn’t even in the same wading pool as Jaws. Still, it is an effective film that has some genuine scares and a commanding and energetic performance from Blake Lively (Gossip Girl, The Age of Adaline). Similar to other one-handed survival films such as Castaway, 127 Hours and All Is Lost, this film sits happily and firmly somewhere in this genre, despite some of its B-movie tropes.
Lively stars as Nancy, a Texan medical student who is grieving the loss of her mother. This back story is cleverly and efficiently told via Nancy going through photos on her phone, before doing some FaceTime on the beach with her father and sister. This treatment of Nancy’s past is all the better for cutting down on exposition.
So, Nancy is still coming to terms with the loss of her mother, and she goes on holiday to find the fabled surfing beach her mother also discovered before she was born.
Director Jaume Collet-Serra is best-known for Liam Neeson action movies Unknown (2011) and Non-Stop (2014). Collet-Serra wastes no time in establishing the idyllic setting followed by impossibly high stakes, as Nancy is attacked by an aggressive shark feeding nearby on a whale carcass. She seeks safe haven atop a rocky outcrop that is slowly being taken back by the tide — just metres from the shore.
Once the shark (a very convincing mix of practical and CGI effects) bares its teeth and reveals its intention, the film moves into Castaway territory. Nancy begins to feel the effects of the injuries sustained during the attack, as well as deal with the mental toll of the ordeal AND the fact the shore is tantalisingly close (underscoring just how impossible the task ahead seems to be).
The mechanics of survival – Nancy’s ingenuity rivals that of Robert Redford’s embattled yachtsman in All Is Lost – make compelling drama. Her ear rings and necklace provide makeshift sutures; the arm of her wetsuit becomes a compression bandage on her wound; she even has time to fix a dislocated wing of a seagull who shares the rock with her.
The film’s intentions are clear. Nancy is being faced with a similar situation as her mother faced and, so, should learn life lessons if she survives the ordeal. She must find resilience in the face of impossible odds and also begin to come to terms with the grief of the loss of her mother.
Some of the body-horror shocks which you might fear in a movie like this are not to be seen; instead, Collet-Serra cleverly opts to focus on Lively’s reaction to some of the horrors that play out.
The Shallows is an effective showcase for Lively’s talents. She capably carries the film, in what is a physically demanding role. The surprising edition of a precocious seagull – dubbed Steven Seagal, the film’s equivalent of Tom Hanks’ pal Wilson the basketball in Castaway — help to pad out screen time. Same goes for a late-in-the-game GoPro love letter that is cast adrift on the surf, as Nancy begins to lose hope of ever being rescued.
The camera’s gaze is always focussed on Lively, and it is through her transfixed stare that much of the terror and tension of the film is derived. Granted, there is the grim sight of her stitching up her own wounded leg, but this comes with some powerfully effective chills — as the camera never leaves Lively’s deeply disturbed reactions to what is happening off-camera.
What the film lacks in co-stars, it gains in some very impressive CGI. Although seemingly unfeasibly large at around 25 feet, the shark is a marvel of computer graphics technology and a genuinely foreboding presence. This is particularly so early on in the film, through looming shadows underwater and overhead shots to establish its scale.
One of the narrative issues that human-versus-beast films often face is how to end convincingly. Whether you cheer or unintentionally chuckle at the climax will demonstrate if The Shallows has sustained the tension effectively.
While it isn’t going to go down as a Jaws-style classic, this is a simple, effective and cleverly told film about resilience, strength of will and survival, no matter the odds.
It’s got us talking, but what about?
What does the Bible say about resilience against the odds? (2 Corinthians 4:8-9, Philippians 4:12-13)
What does the Bible say about dealing with grief? (2 Corinthians 1:3-4, Ecclesiastes 3:1-14)
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