Sunday, November 27, 2016
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Starring: Blake Lively, Óscar Jaenada, Brett Cullen, Sedona Legge
Running Time: 86 min.
★★★ (out of ★★★★)
Over the past couple of years, "Shark Week" has morphed into what could be considered a national holiday. With it now comes an onslaught of shark-related programming, shark documentaries and "so bad, they're bad" Sharknado movies. It only seems that the next logical step would be a single location shark thriller, except for the fact that we already had a pretty good one with 2003's Open Water, an underappreciated gem in which a married scuba-diving couple out at sea fight for their lives in shark-infested waters. But from the start, it's clear The Shallows isn't going to be THAT type of a psychological thriller. For one, it has a budget. For two, it stars Blake Lively. You don't put a young, big name, popular actress in the lead to get ripped limb by limb by a great white. The highest praise you can give Jaume Collet-Serra's film is that it has its moments where you think he might actually be going there. Of course, we know better, but none of that takes away from the entertainment or enjoyment of it all, as the suspense is skillfully escalates throughout even some of the more credibility-straining sections.
A snake may be able to swallow Jon Voight's villain whole in Anaconda but don't necessarily expect a similar fate for our heroine here, and while this does a surprisingly credible job putting her in perilous danger, it never feels that laughably ridiculous. Lively, who first surprised us with the extent of her acting capabilities in The Town (and to a lesser degree, Savages), is asked to carry this entire project on her shoulders and proves herself more than equipped at handling that responsibility. If you don't like the lead in this, chances are you won't like the movie and its problems will only be amplified. Luckily, that shouldn't be an issue for most and there's enough else that works about the familiar situation and skillful execution to recommend it, including the shark.
Following the death of her mother, medical student Nancy Adam (Lively) takes a vacation to a secluded beach in Mexico, the same one her mom visited while she was pregnant with her. She's dropped off at the beach by a friendly local and in between an emotionally strained video-chat with her sister (Sedona Legge) and dad (Brett Cullen) back home, she gets in some surfing with a couple of guys, at least until the discovery (and foul smell) of a large, dead humpback whale floating nearby. Pretty soon, the murderer makes itself known, a great white shark that takes a bite out of her leg, forcing her to swim to the closest rock to slow the bleeding and attempt to treat a very serious wound.
Nancy will spend an indefinite amount of time stranded on this rock, with only a seagull for company, as the great white circles below, itching to finish what he started. With the shore suddenly further than ever and swimming becoming an impossibility due to her injury, Nancy must fight for her life as the shark claims more victims and she battles the elements, as well as her deteriorating physical condition. The real battle takes place inside herself, as she must summon up the wits, strength, resourcefulness and courage to come out of this alive and return home. In one piece.
More exciting than it has any right being, the stripped down story is aided not only by Lively's intensely physical performance (a full-fledged endurance test for the actress), but how little we see of the shark. Sound familiar? Obviously, Jaws comes to mind and while that film's malfunctioning shark famously and accidently resulted in seeing far less of it than intended, this movie holds him off intentionally to recreate that same feeling of escalating tension and dread. While Jaws was mechanical and the result of practical effects, this one is entirely rendered with CGI, and it's a testament to how little we see of it that such information is hardly noteworthy.
The shark's occasional appearances are genuinely well placed and scary, with Collet-Serra picking his spots well. But since the bulk of the running time is spent with Blake on this rock, the bigger challenge is holding our interest with a protagonist cut off from the outside world. Steven The Seagull may as well be this film's version of Wilson the volleyball in Cast Away. As a device, it's not relied on quite as much but he effectively serves his function as a sounding board for the audience to gain insight into Nancy's state of mind through a one-way dialogue. Cleverly, a Go Pro camera also serves that purpose with her video confessionals, even as the script arguably travels a bridge too far in terms of its impact on the story's resolution.
While it's doubtful a shark would continuously circle its prey like a serial killer for days at a time and likely has better things to do, The Shallows isn't really meant to be hold up to close logical scrutiny in that regard. Many of the events that occur are preposterous when taken purely at face value, but what makes it work is the tight, compact execution of it all and Lively's believability as a young woman at a crossroads who's suddenly thrust into an increasingly unbelievable situation. Even as the script sometimes tests plausibility, Lively doesn't and it wouldn't be a surprise to find out she put a lot of physical preparation into the role, or has previous surfing experience based on scenes where it's abundantly clear a stuntperson wasn't involved.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the premise that's grazed upon but mostly left unexplored is the danger of this young woman traveling alone in a country where she knows no one and speaks very little of the language. An argument could be made that if this didn't happen, something else just as awful was easily destined to. But they'll have to save that for the sequel. The biggest jump to be made is that anyone could survive a shark attack like this so it's a credit to the filmmakers that you rarely notice they're holding much back for a PG-13, infrequently shying away from the horror of the situation as its main character is put through the ringer. By the time it's over, viewers will feel spent enough to relate.