|UK Release Date||12th August 2016|
|Reviewed||15th August 2016|
It will come as no surprise to anyone reading this that we were more than a little excited at the prospect of a brand new shark movie. We like to think we’ve seen more than the odd one and from Jaws through to Mega Shark vs Giant Octopus, we’ve witnessed some weird shit. Undaunted though, we headed out to Jaume Collet-Serra’s latest with nothing but good thoughts (especially given the excellent trailer - specifically the one below).
The Shallows then finds young mourning doctor in training Nancy (Blake Lively) returning to the unnamed bay in Mexico that her recently deceased mother surfed whilst pregnant with her. The recent death it would seem has cast a world of doubts on Nancy and so she has upped sticks on her training, her younger sister and her father. We learn all this through a series of photographs on Nancy’s phone and a video call from the beach. Nancy meets two other local surfers after her taxi driver has dropped her at the beach (having subtly refused to give her its name and ominously leaving her with the word ‘….careful’) and is having a wonderful time when she decides to head out for one last wave before heading back. Like that always fatal ‘one last job before retirement’, the final wave extracts a heavy price on our heroine.
I’ve got to say, I am not a huge fan of Collet-Serra, though I must be wrong because Sight and Sound published a surprisingly positive piece on him this month. Either way, my experience thus far of his work has been House of Wax - not my thing but bloodthirsty enough I guess, Unknown - Neeson doing something a bit different to be fair, Non-Stop - Neeson doing exactly the same as he always does these days but on a plane and Run All Night - Neeson doing exactly the same all over again but pissing himself first….. None of this points to a successful survival tale. Well, he’s not done a bad job.
Things are relatively well set from the outset as a small child running along the beach discovers something that will likely put him off swimming in the bay for some time to come (though it’s easily the second worst thing on the beach at that point - he somehow misses the other). Leaving us with an idea of what has happened over the previous hours but no clue who survived. I mean, we’re old hats at this now so we know only too well but it’s nice to have some doubt built in. Time pre-shark is probably balanced about right. We get some good back story with Nancy and her character is nice enough for us to forgive her fleeing her sister and father.
It’s not long though before Nancy heads out for that fateful last wave and starts to notice things are not quite right in the surf. This is confirmed quite emphatically when she follows the sight of seagulls to a huge Humpback whale carcass. Time to quietly and confidently swim away from the…. too late. What follows is a pretty gruelling exercise as Nancy initially finds safety atop the whale, then atop a gradually disappearing rock, then a nearby buoy. All the time attempting to avoid the attentions of a significantly sized predator. Which for reasons that nobody should spend any time trying to fathom, insists on having its whale and eating its surfers.
As always with these things, analysing the setup is redundant. The whale is a nice idea but nobody is going to buy for a second that given the choice between calmly consuming this (which a single shark appears to have to itself) and deliberately chasing down a wily surfer that any self respecting shark is going to go for Lively. Especially over a period of a good eight hours.
So what are we left with? Tension? In reasonable amounts yes. I’m still not convinced about Collet-Serra but he manages to wring a couple of good hold your breath moments out of proceedings. The issue with the camera work though is that by the movie’s very name, you can pretty much see both the surface and the reef at the same time, eliminating that horrid feeling in your gut that arrives when you realise IT could come at you from any angle. The perpetual beauty of the surroundings doesn’t help. When the characters aren’t specifically surfing, the bay is a truly stunning patchwork of glass-like azure water and wonderful green corals. That said, once Lively makes it onto the buoy, a nice, grimy industrial element creeps in. But by then the movie is beginning to run on fumes (literally at one stage).
As pretty much our only human company during the lean 86 minute run time, Blake Lively makes for a commanding presence. Believable as both the pained twenty something, the doctor in / out of training and the ‘Fuck you!’ heroine the movie moulds, she is clearly going places. Bedecked in all manner of product placement (no opportunity is missed) and suffering through some of the most wince-inducing DIY surgery seen in some time, Lively gives her Nancy just enough vulnerability to both clinically detail her horrible injuries and breakdown completely as she tries to leave a video for her family. It's a shame that Collet-Serra's camera lingers a little too long in slow motion on her physical assets to be entirely comfortable.
For the entirely CGI shark, it’s actually pretty solid. The initial attack is a bit ropey and I’m sure that the director misses a number of great opportunities to have suggestions of it knocking around at the back of shots but the computer work is solid and only a laugh out loud end will have you wondering about it. None of the other human characters really register, the surfers surf a lot, there's a drunk guy, the kid and the taxi driver. And that's you lot, aside from an actually pretty personable seagull with a dislocated wing.
Which leaves us with a beautifully shot, more mature than most tale of survival against horrific odds. I don’t really buy The Shallows as a traditional sharksploitation movie, it tries way too hard to be more than that and, thanks largely to its star, succeeds more than it fails. It’s also not really tense enough to get away with being a horror. Comparisons have been drawn with 127 Hours but I’m way too much of a wuss to actually watch that so I’m coming up short there but I can say this is far more about a woman beating the odds without having to prove herself to anyone but herself.
Reservations about director aside, I have to say I did enjoy The Shallows. The pacing is good, the shark well rendered and Blake Lively is a captivating central character. This isn’t going to have you panicking as you step into the water the next time you’re on holiday but equally it won’t try your patience with z-list stars hacking yet another flying shark up with a chainsaw. If you set aside the mountain of contrivances and don’t ask too many questions, this one will nicely prop up a summer of lacklustre releases at the multiplex.