The Shallows (2016) is one of the more hyped horror efforts of the year. A rare combination of big star, an interesting concept and a fair amount of studio backing is a mixture that saw the film get solid buzz. The film itself though is a bit of a frustrating mix of creative ideas and dulled edges.
Blake Lively plays Nancy, a walking cliché who has to be told by the locals to take her head out of her phone so she can soak in the stunning Mexican landscape she finds herself in. The ham-fisted character sketching extends to her background too, with the recent loss of her mother and dropping out of medical school as a result adding little. Thankfully though, the film does not waste too much time with this setup, and soon enough we are seeing a more interesting aspect of Nancy’s character – her rad surfing skills. Here too is where the filmmaking excels. These early, euphoric surf sequences are stylishly done, especially the repeated use of wide shots. It’s not the standard way the sport is usually shown, but it gives a sense of scale and beauty to the endeavour that feels fresh. It also helps to capture the inherent isolation that will become a major theme later in the film. There are some kinda gross lingering and unnecessary shots of Lively’s butt and boobs that drop in too frequently.
Before too long though, the shark arrives. Inexplicably tiring of feasting on a nearby dead whale, the shark turns its attention to Nancy and anyone else who paddles into its domain. The first appearances of the shark deliver two really different stylish moments (a chase and an attack), which wow the viewer to such a degree, everything that follows feels rather plain. In any good shark flick, the true measures of success are the deaths and the scares. The Shallows does not deliver on either front. The body count is low. Which is not an issue in and of itself, but none of the deaths hit with any kind of impact. The story continues uninterrupted immediately after each death. Perhaps an even bigger issue is that the film only has a few of ways to build tension. Shots of feet just making it out of the water, surfer’s disappearing briefly below rolling swells and characters reaching desperately for something in the water are repeated over and over. And once you’ve seen it a couple of times, it is clear no ill will come of it, especially given the propensity on the part of the filmmakers for cheap scares. This is not the white-knuckle thrill ride it had the potential to be. Instead the silliness in the daft attempt to prescribe motive to the shark’s attacks and an ending that is so off-base my audience was full of giggles.
Lively’s Nancy more or less commentates what is happening throughout the film. The result is perhaps the best and most convincing performances Lively has ever delivered. Even when the material is at its weakest, she is always able to draw the audience into her plight. This effort is often undermined though by the use of dodgy CGI that serves to cruel any tension built up, as the poor effects jolt the viewer out of the film. There are a number of elements such as this that serve to make the film a brasher experience than it perhaps needed to be given the strong concept, perhaps reflecting the investment from the large, non-genre focused studios.
Ultimately it feels that the main tension driving The Shallows is not Blake Lively vs a giant bloody shark, rather the film’s high concept genre premise vs its studio backing. That helps to explain the uneven tone, with the sillier moments detracting from an experience that should be plenty more harrowing than it is. This is even more frustrating given there is a handful of really interesting stylistic elements and a solid central performance from Lively.
by special guest reviewer Tim @beermovie Hoar