The Shallows is the latest film from Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra (Orphan, Non-Stop), who has developed a loyal fan-base with his ability to liven-up the tired tropes of mass-appeal genre films. After a trio of Liam Neeson-led shoot-em-up action entries (including the pretty decent Non-Stop, which was effectively an Agatha-Christie-on-a plane) he returns to horror, where he last worked in 2009 with the underrated Orphan. In what is perhaps his best film to date – on the simplest terms Jaws meets 127 Hours – he tells a gripping and visually arresting survival story of a desperate but determined woman clinging to glimpses of hope, and using her substantial wits and capabilities to fix and manoeuvre her injured body, and navigate the safe havens at her disposal. With a game, intense performance from Lively, and some vicious shark take-downs this is a particularly strong entry in the oft-tried sub-genre.
Still reeling from the loss of her mother, medical student Nancy Adams (Blake Lively) has gone off-grid, seeking solace in Mexico and visiting a secluded beach once visited by her mother. Despite the danger of surfing alone – two surfing companions had called it a day – Nancy takes to the water for one last wave. When she is swept into the feeding ground of an enormous great white shark, and is attacked and badly injured, she is forced to swim to and find safety on a small patch of coral. Stranded 200 yards from shore, the frightened young woman must fight for her life against harsh, ever-changing elements – the bitter cold of the night, and a high tide threatening to submerge her sanctuary – and the deadly predator circling her location.
The Shallows is a story about the strength of the human spirit, and digging into the recesses of your courage. Nancy – alone, injured and frightened – must use everything at her disposal to survive against a vicious predator in its natural environment. Her medical knowledge results in several Macgyver-esque treatment techniques, including the use of her jewellery to suture a wound and part of her wetsuit as a pressure bandage. She’s resourceful, and makes her decisions after an analysis of her surroundings and the habits of her enemy.
Collet-Serra does some very interesting things with his camera, beautifully capturing the surfers’ bodies in motion at the beginning of the film with stylistically-heightened above and below-water photography, and acclimating us to the spatial dimensions of where the action will unfold. There is a buoy about 200m offshore, and an island of rocks that penetrates the surface when the tide is low. These become spots for Nancy to recuperate and protect herself. This establishment enhances the stakes of Nancy’s struggle later, when her immobility and isolation begins to weigh on her psychologically. DP Falvio Labiano’s stunning aerial shots also reveal high concentrations of dark coral, a clever technique to emphasise how difficult the shark is to spot.
I was also pretty happy with how Collet-Serra used photographs, and a face-time call to her sister and father, to efficiently and unfussily establish Nancy’s profession and her motivation for surfing that particular beach. It does get a bit heavy-handed tying to tie Nancy’s natural fight to her late mother – also a fighter, and whose spirit might be watching over her. The GoPro camera worn by one of the surfers Nancy meets at the beach also has dual roles – and Lively’s game solo performance is physically credible, but also heartbreaking. One of the film’s most memorable moments actually doesn’t reveal a violent shark take-down, but the camera remains locked on Lively’s face as she witnesses the attack from afar, and the horror on her face suggests everything. A marvelous decision, which at that point kept the shark’s true capabilities a mystery.
There are a few dodgy CGI effects – one shot of Lively surfing is especially poor, and a late development is egregiously convenient and disappointingly fake-looking – but the shark is mostly an exceptional creation. Also impressive is the seagull training work on ‘Steven Seagull’, Nancy’s injured seagull companion for most of the film. This may be the finest performance by a seagull in motion-picture history.
A nail-biting survival thriller, The Shallows features a headlining performance from Lively, and is an emotionally involving story of female empowerment, with enough gory peril to also please horror fans.
By Andrew Buckle
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Writer: Anthony Jaswinski
Starring: Blake Lively
Runtime: 86 minutes
Release date: Australia: August 18, 2016