Thursday, June 30, 2016

Toothless: The Shallows

Blake Lively stars in The Shallows, currently in theatres.

The first thing I thought when I saw the trailer for The Shallows was “Great, another Jaws ripoff.” The second thing I thought was “Wow, it looks gorgeous, though.” My thoughts now that I’ve seen the film are, perhaps unsurprisingly, totally unchanged. I’m not an expert on the work of director Jaume Collet-Serra, but I knew enough to expect a trashy piece of summer entertainment that had a distinct visual polish, and that’s exactly what I got with The Shallows.

Collet-Serra directed the 2005 remake of House of Wax, and the late-era Liam Neeson thriller Non-Stop, making him the perfect candidate for this “Blake Lively fends off a shark for 90 minutes” vehicle, which trades in striking cinematography, a beautifully vapid leading lady, and surprisingly coherent characterization. Not that that sort of thing matters in a film like The Shallows, of course – it’s exactly the same kind of summer schlock as the stuff on the other side of the marquee (like Independence Day: Resurgence, which I’m looking forward to), but on the opposite end of the spectrum. You go over there for your massive explosions and your romantic subplots and your moustache-twirling villains; you sit down for The Shallows for the shark-on-Blake action. Either way, you check your brain at the door.

Screenwriter Anthony Jaswinski has only a few characters to work with and a very simple setup, but he dots his i’s and crosses his t’s, giving us just enough to chew on: his heroine Nancy (Lively) is a Texan med school dropout who would rather surf than complete her residency; she has a precocious younger sister and a single dad who urges her not to give up – and the ghost of her dead mom hangs over her as a reminder that the world is cruel and that saving people is a losing battle. We meet her as she arrives at a secluded beach (somewhere picturesque and vaguely Spanish), abandoned by her flaky travel companion, and attempts to reconnect with her mother who surfed there when Nancy was in the womb. (Ill-advised, perhaps, but what the hell do I know about surfing – really, what’s the worst that could happen?) Nancy packs her gear in neat, labelled bags, and dons her surfing kit with monk-like precision and care. She’s shown to be smart, resourceful, and fiercely independent before she even hits the water.

And then, when she does what she came to do, she is bitten by a massive shark. With 200 yards of water – an impossible distance – between her and the shore, and nobody around to help, she hops between a rocky outcropping, a buoy marker, and a floating whale carcass in an attempt to escape from her fishy tormenter. Those three “locales” become her whole world, and the scope of the film narrows down to Nancy and her dogged determination to survive. Remember the last five minutes or so of Jaws, when Roy Scheider fought alone against the shark on the sinking wreck of Quint’s boat? The Shallows is that sequence, stretched out to feature length.

The Shallows doesn’t even come close to approaching the cinematic genius of Jaws, but it’s smart enough not to try. Collet-Serra directs a very personal film here, interested in the tiny details of moment-to-moment survival, and does a fine job of presenting those details in an engaging and visually-captivating way. The elements of Jaswinski’s screenplay come into effect as well – Nancy sews up her wound using nothing but her jewelery and her medical experience, and is resourceful enough to think to tear off the arm of her wetsuit to use as a compression bandage. She finds the determination to fight off dehydration, hunger, a quickly-worsening leg wound, and that big-ass fish, thanks to her mother’s determination to beat cancer. There’s even a seagull stranded with her (credited, amazingly, as ‘Steven Seagull as Himself’), whom she attempts to save from the shark. The issue with all this, despite the (sometimes painful) clarity of the writing and direction, is Lively herself. She has the natural screen presence to look the part of a leading lady, and she gamely attempts to draw you into Nancy’s struggle, but she simply doesn’t have the acting chops to carry an entire film by herself. I enjoy imagining what someone similar like Margot Robbie, who is far more charismatic, might have done with the role. What we get is that girl from The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants screaming for help in a voice that made me laugh aloud.

There’s enough suspense (the rising tide making the rock untenable as a safe spot, her wound making her weak, etc) to keep your attention for the duration. But except for a few moments where Lively flounders in the water, spewing tasty blood towards her foe, the film never quite reaches the heights of nail-biting tension that Collet-Serra is clearly aiming for. Thankfully, when the shark does show up (Collet-Serra keeps him mostly vague and offscreen, again a good choice), the CGI looks convincing and it presents a menacing threat – not to mention a few much-needed gory moments when other unsuspecting locals come to enjoy the beach’s amenities. I’ll go ahead and spoil the film here: I was hoping against all odds, before the lights dimmed in the theatre, that The Shallows would have the balls to let the shark eat Lively by the end. No such luck – apparently, it’s not that kind of schlock.

In the end, I wish the film had gone for broke. It shares common elements with much, much trashier fare (the mind drifts to the direct-to-video exploitation era), but has none of that hallmark braggadocio or sheer disregard for good taste. Instead, Collet-Serra attempts to make a genuinely good movie, and The Shallows ends up landing somewhere in the middle: a good-looking but mostly hollow shark movie, that, ironically, has no teeth.

– Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid film buff, gamer, and industry commentator since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade. He is currently helping to make awesome games at Ubisoft Toronto, and continues to pursue a career in professional criticism.


  1. "Check your brain at the door "-- perfectly describes this movie. My experience of this movie was to be in a constant state of annoyance: it seems every third shot is stopped, stuttered, slowed, the movie is a stream of jump cuts and crescendo music cues, and over-mixed pounding sound effects. Do the filmmakers have any confidence in an audience that with have an attention-span longer than a flea? No. It's a really dumb movie through and through -- surely they could have TRIED to give the character more of a back story than that she is trying to emulate the "fight" of her deceased mother. It's manipulation of the audience without any attempt to give them something. Not to mention that the behavior of the shark has little resemblance to the actual behavior of sharks! It's silly. I laughed outloud at the climax, and I wasn't the only one. Jaws? Jaws is a great novel compared to this, and it steals from Jaws shamelessly.

    1. I agree with you, although it didn't upset me quite as much. I think my blase attitude really came down to the film's lack of punch - as you point out, the shark doesn't behave like a real shark, but shouldn't that allow them to go completely the other way and make it a supernatural force of unstoppable evil (like, I dunno, JAWS)?? Why not go whole hog? At least that would have given the film some kind of identity beyond the paper-thin product we got. Times like these, I miss 80's filmmaking.