Shallow is a mild word for it. Others would be silly, miscalculated, unconvincing, artless, pandering, hokey, ridiculous. Or just plain awful. An old-fashioned shark-attack exploitation picture that willfully disregards all the important lessons of suspense filmmaking passed down from Alfred Hitchcock and, most applicably in this case, Steven Spielberg, The Shallows may generate a bit of commercial traction as a young-woman-in-peril (non) thriller. But what’s onscreen is much closer to a late-1970s AIP-style cheapie than to what you expect from a major studio.
You can just hear the pitch: Out doing a little surfing south of the border, Blake Lively gets stuck on a rock that keeps being circled by a giant shark. Three local dudes get eaten while she’s out there, and part of a whale, too. And maybe there should be an injured seagull so Blake has someone to talk to.
That’s pretty much the extent of the story in Anthony Jaswinski’s screenplay, which director Jaume Collet-Serra (the immortal Liam Neeson actioners Unknown, Non-Stop and Run All Night) manages to extend into 80 minutes (not including the long end credits) of running time. It’s still 80 minutes you won’t get back.
Establishing from the outset a visual approach that presents no coherent style at all — shots come at you from persistently unrelated angles with inconsistent focal lengths and lenses, film speeds change willy-nilly — the helmer still manages to set up the basic situation: Gregarious Texan medical student Nancy (Lively) has come to her late mother’s favorite beach (with Australia’s stunning Lord Howe Island standing in for Mexico) for some head-clearing surfing. She has the place, situated on a perfect, jungle-enshrouded crescent bay, almost to herself, save for a couple of local good-times guys who warn her about the tides and get in a couple of scenic runs before calling it a day.
When Nancy stays out there a little too long and the beast shows up, she takes refuge on the only available real estate, a tiny rock island distinguished by its sharp edges and coral, on which she severely cuts a leg. The med-school background comes in handy here, as it’s evidently taught her to (unconvincingly) suture a deep wound with the ear pins she conveniently wears. There’s a large whale floating about nearby whose bloody open wounds prove enticing to the shark as well as to many birds. And when the shark becomes frustrated by not quite managing to sink its many teeth into its blond main object of desire, it delivers capital punishment to a tubby drunk for the crime of trying to make off with Nancy’s backpack on the beach. The next day, Nancy is unable to warn the returning two dudes about what awaits them in the surf.
The events up to this point lead less to speculation as to how Nancy will negotiate the 200 yards from the rock to the shore than as to how much a king-sized shark can eat in a short period before it is full. Are three (actually two-and-a-half) guys plus unlimited portions of whale enough to sate the killer’s appetite for one day? Or will a shark take advantage of every opportunity to chow down while it can to make up for lean stretches?
Collet-Serra and Jaswinski aren’t attentive to such elemental questions, nor are they interested in such stylistic niceties as gradually building mood and tension for a suspenseful set-piece. Unwilling to leave any single image onscreen for more than a few seconds, the director resorts to quick shots and cluttering inserts of a digital clock and small-screen video images. And he adamantly refuses to methodically build a scene, in Hitchcockian fashion, from a state of ominous calm to the stages of anxious tension and, finally, desperate peril.
While the film itself may jump the shark early on, a scene of the menace jumping the rock like a crazed seal in pursuit of its main course is saved for shortly before the murky underwater action climax, in which it’s impossible to discern what’s going on. There’s no catharsis here, only confusion on top of shrugging shoulders and, after a brief one-year-later postscript, eye-rolling.
The abundant danger and physical pain endured by the lead character intermittently calls to mind the suffering depicted in 127 Hours, but this comparison only works to the present pic’s detriment. That said, a generous measure of sympathy cannot be denied to Lively, who is entirely game for the heavy rigors obviously demanded of her in the water and on the rocks. The camera is in her face and all over her body all the time. It was a gamble on her part, whether she could withstand the close scrutiny of a camera alone onscreen the majority of the time, like Robert Redford in All Is Lost or, to a lesser extent, Matt Damon in The Martian. Unfortunately for her, she didn’t get the level of creative behind-the-camera help they did.
Production companies: Weimaraner Republic Pictures, Ombra Films
Cast: Blake Lively, Oscar Jaenada, Angelo Josue, Lozano Corzo, Jose Manuel, Trujillo Salas, Brett Cullen, Sedona Legge, Pablo Calva, Diego Espejel
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Screenwriter: Anthony Jaswinski
Producers: Lynn Harris, Matti Leshem
Executive producers: Doug Merrifield, Jaume Collet-Serra
Director of photography: Flavio Labiano
Production designer: Hugh Bateup
Editor: Joel Negron
Music: Marco Beltrami
Visual effects supervisor: Scott E. Anderson
Rated PG-13, 86 minutes