THE SHALLOWS. Blake Lively, Óscar Jaenada, Brett Cullen, Sedona Legge. Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra. 86 minutes. Rated M (Sense of peril, bloody injury detail and coarse language).
In most survival thrillers with an A-list name above the title, you can all but guarantee that the hero or heroine will make it to the end. This is a function of both basic storytelling (triumph over adversity) and the requirements of the studio responsible (it’s tough to create good word of mouth when an audience leaves a cinema feeling dejected). What sets these films apart then, is the thrill of the journey. With a strong yet vulnerable performance from Blake Lively and director Jaume Collet-Serra’s taut control of visuals and pace, ‘The Shallows’ delivers enough ‘wow’ moments to compensate for the inevitable story trajectory.
Young American Nancy (Blake Lively) hitches a ride with a local man to a secluded Mexican beach (a glorious spot actually shot in Australia). From her conversation with the driver, we know her mother visited the spot years earlier, when she was first pregnant with Nancy. As Nancy prepares to hit the water with her surfboard in tow, a sense of unease sets in – in a pre-credits flashforward, a young boy found a waterproof camera on the same beach, containing footage of a brutal shark attack, and finished with the image of Nancy’s broken board on the shore. We know the shark is coming, but we don’t know when.
Nancy’s surfing credentials are established in a long montage, as she cuts through the water with a couple of local grommets. Cinematographer Flavio Labiano captures sharp and sun-soaked footage, and not even the overuse of slow-mo surfing shots can dull the genuine pleasure in watching her and her new pals in action. She eventually goes ashore to call home – so far, no great whites. Her exposition laden chat with her sister and Dad clumsily fills in the blanks: Nancy was a medical student, but dropped out after her mother died of an unspecified illness and embarked on what seems to be some sort of soul searching tour in Central America. Screenwriter Anthony Jaswinski does his best to give her a semblance of a backstory, but it’s fairly unnecessary given the nature of the story – does she really need more reason to fight for survival, given that survival would be anyone’s driving motivation in a shark attack? The script makes up for this elsewhere, having Nancy cook up some intelligent and playful solutions to her increasingly dire situation later in the piece.
As Nancy hits the water for ‘one last wave’ (surely she recognises she’s tempting fate when uttering these famous last words), everything begins to go pear-shaped. A monstrous great white shark that was feeding on a decomposing whale carcass nearby knocks her off her board and then attacks, causing significant damage to her leg. The creature is clearly CGI, but it holds up to inspection pretty well (though less can be said for some of the oddly composed underwater sequences later). She escapes to safety on a rocky outcrop, but now at the mercy of the tide which will eventually swallow up her refuge, her ordeal has just begun. Collet-Serra keeps a good grip on the pacing of the film, and it accelerates well towards the finale. It never overstays its welcome either, clocking in at a sleek 86 minutes.
The survival genre also hinges on the ability of the protagonist to make us care about their struggle, and Nancy makes for a good lead in this respect. She’s smart, sensitive, well organised, and athletic. She deserves to survive. You want her to make it. Blake Lively holds your attention on screen (a big ask, as she regularly has little more than a seagull to act against), and her mounting panic and terror are more than evident in her underwater screams.
‘The Shallows’ is a pulpy high-concept thriller that delivers exactly what you’re probably expecting – a few thrills, a few relatively bloodless deaths, and enough of the exciting shark action promised in the promos to leave you satisfied.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out August 18.