Review: The Shallows (2016)


The Shallows (2016): Columbia Pictures/Ombra Films/Weimaraner Republic Pictures

JAWS gave sharks a bad name. The SHARKNADO series gave shark movies a bad name. THE SHALLOWS doesn’t exactly redeem sharkkind, but it’s an effective, no-nonsense thriller that makes me hope to see more films in this vein in the future.

When surfer and surgeon-in-training Nancy (Blake Lively) arrives at an isolated Mexican beech to reconnect with an important place to her recently-deceased mother, she expects little more than to hit the waves and find peace. Then a run of bad luck finds her injured and stranded on a rock tantalisingly close to the shoreline and a ferocious shark between her and safety…

Stunning underwater photography courtesy of Flavio Martínez Labiano highlights the beauty of the ocean ecosystem and its ability to obscure deadly predators. Every time the camera dips below the surface you are braced to catch a glimpse of a dark shape hunting. Be warned though, for however good the film looks when its set pieces are achieved practically, there are some pretty dodgy CG beasties in there as well. A scene involving the sudden appearance of jellyfish in particular rankles.

An early scene where Nancy is grabbed and dragged underwater outdoes Jaws for scares. It’s amazing to see how technical advancements have helped make images like this more primal and effective, and though they now could technically show everything, like with Jaws it’s more high-impact when something is left to the imagination. Lively’s raw performance is always front-and-centre, especially a moment where the camera is tight on her face as she reacts to the shark’s most gruesome kill out of shot. Unfortunately this effect is somewhat ruined when we are shown the result of this attack straight afterwards.

The setup featuring lots of slow motion and somewhat indulgent camera angles for Nancy undressing and lying on her surfboard is more than a bit BAYWATCH. Nancy’s wetsuit couldn’t be more revealing, consisting as it does of a jacket that hugs her breasts coupled with bikini bottoms. I’m not saying she’d be wearing a lot more while surfing around Mexico, but it’s pretty obvious why she wears what she wears; to make the most of those aforementioned camera angles. When the story kicks in, you can forget about a lot of this and we get a taut horror movie jammed full with classic genre tropes (isolated locale, countdown to death, locals with forbidden knowledge). Towards the end it goes all unashamed B-Movie and we end up with a silly, but enjoyable final stretch that mostly ignores physics, biology, reason…

The film is better when the shark acts like a shark and not Jason Voorhees. Nancy works out its hunting pattern and the distance she needs to cover in time in planning her escape, but the shark very quickly forgets about the convenient floating hulk of dead whale meat and decides it would prefer to go for the far more insubstantial injured surfer and is prepared to force its way through rock and metal to get to her. At some point, even the most relentless predator driven by bloodlust would go back to the food source that required less effort for more sustenance. I know you wouldn’t have much of a story if the shark just went back to the whale, and I’d almost let this pass if it was a more aggressive species of shark than the go-to Great White, but again the filmmakers don’t let little things like realism get in the way of the excitement.

Using sharks as plot devices will always be a bit B-movie material, but there’s no reason why you can’t make good B-movies. The Shallows is a very good B-move, a sweaty palms thriller and a natural world horror with scares to compete with Jaws. It wouldn’t work at all if you didn’t care about the one character you spend the whole movie with (not counting the seagull) but Blake Lively’s determined performance binds the whole thing together and helps make this one of the pleasant surprises of the summer. Film has done it again and taken away the appeal of going back into the water. SSP

About Sam Sewell-Peterson

Writer and film fanatic fond of black comedies, sci-fi, animation and films about dysfunctional families.
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