Another intense situational drama built around a lone protagonist, in a similar mould to the likes of 127 Hours, Castaway and All Is Lost. The difference? A 25 foot great white shark with a serious attitude problem…
Blake Lively gives a striking performance as surfing enthusiast Nancy; a young woman still dealing with a personal tragedy, seeking solace from her grief in the most exotic, isolated spot she can find to do something she loves. We learn she’s also turning her back on a promising career she no longer sees any merit in. However when her fortunes take a terrifying turn for the worse, she begins to reevaluate her life. What starts as a believable survival drama gradually morphs into monster movie/ slasher film; but director Jaume Collet-Serra dials up the intensity (and implausibility) gradually throughout the film. By the climax, you're hooked enough to go with the flow, even when we enter the realms of Jaws-sequel action territory.
As well as being rather easy on the eye, Blake Lively completely sells the situation and her character’s personal fear and pain. You feel every horrific wound, every shiver and every desperate thwarted attempt to escape. Animal rights advocates will balk at yet another negative portrayal of Carcharodon carcharias, but once you accept the premise of the movie it becomes clear that the shark that terrorizes her is more like a personal demon than a believable animal; a vicious, brutal antagonist and arguably a metaphor for death striking at random (like the cancer that took her mother) and challenging her to fight in the same way. It’s here that comparisons to Jaws begin to break down. It’s not really a ‘shark movie’ at all; at the end of the day it’s all about Nancy’s personal struggle. In this respect The Shallows arguably has a lot more in common with Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity in terms of 'lone woman learning a life lesson through extreme adversity'. Different perils, but Nancy’s and Ryan’s arcs are essentially the same.
Metaphors aside, The Shallows is simply a thrilling film. The pacing is brisk and lean; the cinematography is dazzling with stunning Australian locations standing in for Mexico; and the shark attacks are visceral, bloody and shocking. They even have a strange beauty; such as a scene in which Nancy is dragged underwater in slow motion and the seascape around her turns a lurid crimson. It’s imaginatively filmed in other ways too. Nancy’s reliance on information is via technology; so watch displays, texts and social media conversations are overlayed on screen, HUD style. It’s a neat touch that gives the film its own signature, and also keeps the camera focused exclusively on Lively and the beautiful locations.
Rather than go all-out for realism, Jaume Collet-Serra sets out to entertain and tell as story with this film, and dares you to go with it. Some might not be able to handle the progressive implausibility (although truth-be-told it isn't much crazier than the climax of Jaws) but if you can get on-board with it (no pun intended), it's a thrilling and life-affirming cinematic ride.