Film Review: ‘The Shallows’

'The Shallows' Review
Photo courtesy of Columbia Pictures

Blake Lively plays the great white surfer who faces off against a killer shark in this far-from-deep summer scarefest.

Most shark attacks occur in less than six feet of water. In many ways, that fact alone is scarier than just about anything in Jaume Collet-Serra’s “The Shallows” — unless you count the color of Blake Lively’s face, which some visual effects flunky inadvertently turned a seasick shade of green when digitally superimposing it onto surf double Isabella Nichols.

Like “The Deep” — the schlocky 1977 Peter Benchley adaptation immortalized by the sight of Jacqueline Bisset in a wet T-shirt — Collet-Serra’s more aptly named film recognizes that audiences tend to be a lot more interested in water-logged thrillers when there’s a pretty actress at stake. As the sexy alternative to the protagonists of “All Is Lost” (Robert Redford is too old) and “Life of Pi” (Suraj Sharma is too young), Lively plays Nancy, a med school student who faces off against a great white shark just a few yards from shore. While the movie goes out of its way to stress that Nancy survives as long as she does because of her intelligence, it’s her beach bod and bikini that will account for 90% of this thriller’s summer box office.

Lively may have been cast primarily for her physique, but she proves a compelling heroine all the same. Coping with a personal tragedy and looking for some alone time, Nancy seeks out her late mother’s favorite Mexican beach — a location so secret the crew evidently located it somewhere in Queensland, Australia. Normally, this is the sort of pilgrimage someone might make in order to scatter a loved one’s ashes, but Nancy comes empty-handed, except for her surfboard and smartphone. The latter serves two purposes: to deliver bare-bones exposition and to cross-promote parent company Sony’s latest high-tech gizmo — a reminder that most modern-day horror movies can be “solved” simply by calling the police.

Unfortunately for her, Nancy leaves her stylish Swiss Army phone on the beach and swims out to catch some waves. It’s a beautiful cove, and Collet-Serra and his camera crew (including surf d.p. Dwayne Fetch) lavish us with a gorgeous (if somewhat abstractly cut together) hang-10 montage featuring nice moves by Nancy and two unnamed Mexican surfers (one of whom wears his head-mounted GoPro camera straight into the shark’s mouth — a teaser offered as the movie’s half-effective opening thrill).

There’s something slightly off about the editing in the first act, signaling early on that Collet-Serra hasn’t spent nearly enough time studying Steven Spielberg. What a difference a John Williams score makes, especially when compared to the relatively suspense-less, all-digital stylings of composer Marco Beltrami, whose background music sounds like broken sonar equipment. As for Collet-Serra, not only does he fail to master the creepy shark’s-eye view, but he even botches that other Spielberg signature: the lingering, wide-eyed reaction shot. When Nancy first arrives on the beach, her mouth falls open, and instead of holding on her face, and then dramatically revealing what she sees, editor Joel Negron cuts to a fly-over helicopter view of the entire cove.

At times, it’s hard to tell whether “The Shallows” is trying to sell a tropical vacation, a Sony Xperia phone, or a fantasy date with Lively, but in any case, the film looks virtually indistinguishable from a slick, high-end commercial. The camera is right there at bust level when Nancy strips off her shirt to reveal a fluorescent orange bikini, and it shamelessly accentuates her curves as she paddles out to meet her fate, as if begging us to question which is more predatory: the shark or the lecherous gaze “The Shallows” affords its audience. The answer arrives soon enough in the film’s single most terrifying shot, in which the great white’s silhouette appears backlit against the last wave Nancy ever surfs — a vision as startling as the knife-wielding old lady who pulled back the shower curtain in “Psycho.”

The encounter leaves a nasty gash in Nancy’s leg, though she reacts quickly enough to avoid the fate that awaits the others who dare swim into the shark’s feeding ground. In the melee, a seagull also barely escapes a fatal encounter with the shark’s jaws, and over the course of the remaining hour, that bird becomes Nancy’s only companion. Together, they take refuge on a bit of rock located perhaps 200 feet from shore, tending to their wounds and feasting on tiny crabs, while hoping not to get eaten themselves. Depending on how spiritual one wants to get, the seagull could be seen as Nancy’s late mother, sent down to watch over her during this test of faith — not a bad way to interpret the dynamic, considering how lean the film is on context or backstory. Among the little we know about Nancy is the fact that her mom’s recent passing seems to have cramped her will to live, and there’s nothing like a near-death encounter to rekindle those survival instincts.

“The Shallows” remains mostly an exercise in pure cinema, wherein action drives the narrative and audiences are expected to extrapolate Nancy’s thoughts by watching how she handles any given situation. In the final stretch, logic snaps like the rusty chains holding the beach’s lone buoy in place, though there’s no denying that the movie is more exciting when Nancy is in the water than hiding out on that bit of reef, talking to a seagull. While observing Nancy’s problem-solving skills ought to come in handy should audiences ever find themselves in her position, the movie will undoubtedly save more lives simply by scaring audiences away from the water. After all, if the shallows aren’t safe, what is?

Film Review: 'The Shallows'

Reviewed at the Grove, June 21, 2016. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 86 MIN.

Production

A Columbia Pictures release and presentation of a Weimaraner Republic Pictures, Ombra Films production. Produced by Lynn Harris, Mattie Leshem. Executive producers, Doug Merrifield, Jaume Collet-Serra.

Crew

Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra. Screenplay, Anthony Jaswinski. Camera (color, widescreen), Flavio Labiano; editor, Joel Negron; music, Marco Beltrami; production designer, Hugh Bateup; supervising art director, Fiona Donovan; art director, Nathan Blanco Fouraux; set decorator, Emma Rudkin; costume supervisors, Helen Maggs, Chelsea Staebell; sound (Dolby Digital), Paul Brincat; sound designers, Tobias Poppe, Brandon Jones; supervising sound editor, Poppe; re-recording mixers, Tateum Kohut, Jones; visual effects supervisor, Scott E. Anderson; visual effects producer, Diana Stulic Ibañez; visual effects, Important Looking Pirates, Digital Sandbox, Scanline VFX, Soho VFX, Notorious VFX Australia, MELS, Hammerhead Prods., Lola VFX, MPC, Spin VFX, Mammal Studios, Oblique FX, Legend FX; special effects coordinator, Brian Cox; stunt coordinator, Glenn Ruehland; underwater camera, Simon Christidis; surf camera, Dwayne Fetch; assistant director, Julian Wall; casting, Ben Parkinson.

With

Blake Lively, Óscar Jaenada, Angelo Josue Lozano Corzo, Jose Manuel Trujillo Salas, Brett Cullen, Sedona Legge, Pablo Calva, Diego Espejel, Janelle Bailey, Sully "Steven" Seagull. (English, Spanish dialogue)

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  1. Arun s says:

    Aside from all the innuendos and suggestions the film obviously brings into focus this shark flick holds its own. The story line is simple and doesn’t involve too many characters or scenes away from Beach and Bikinidom. Despite these so called ‘shortcomings’ it does effectively keep the viewer in suspense.
    Jaws or a sequel it’s not, yet it wasn’t intended to be. Yes, it does a fairly good job of ‘up close and personal’ with a good size squallous (as Dreyfus referred to the killer great white) thereby earning your respect and capturing your attention. When your mind wandered where the movie dragged a bit it was locked in on Blake Livelys alluring form in a bikini, bloody or not. The music isn’t effective in the same way it was in Jaws at all and to me lacked that element. We got used to the hair on the back of the neck standing up, just hearing that build up to an attack.
    Regardless, I think it was cleverly done for what this was meant to be and the scenery was very Australian but projected to be Mexican. Perhaps the Yucatán Peninsula could rival it in part with the rocky waterscapes etc. Overall it was a nicely done entertainer in an otherwise unchanging setting throughout the duration. I did miss the bell tolling and the heightened music build up prior to the attack.
    Sea gulls and the partly devoured whale kill were certainly nicely done as were a couple of other shark attacks, especially the drunk who woke up and ended up being upended on the beach of the shallows.
    Not to forget to mention the devoted bird, a seagull I guess, with the broken wing BL repopped in place.
    I also liked seeing that it made it to shore alive and well on the piece of surfboard she floated it off on.
    Thumbs up!

  2. Savannah says:

    Maybe it’s because I’m a straight woman, but I didn’t notice her body and was pretty riveted by her acting. I could understand your point if she had taken off her bikini top for some odd reason, but she was a surfer wearing a bathing suit for god’s sake, it wasn’t a scene out of Fast Times at Ridgemont High. She was clothed the entire movie, there was no nudity. This reviewer came off like a dirty old man. I thought the movie was very suspenseful and I enjoyed Blake Lively’s performance in this more than anything else I’ve seen her in.

  3. lilly says:

    what a dreary review, how can you miss to mention so many points that makes the shallows the biggest stepping stone in shark thrillers come to date? Your review sounds so passive-aggressive like you begrudgingly don’t want to admit that it was well in fact a well made shark movie.Let me first start off with saying I love shark movies; the classic, the low budget, the cheesy and down right amateur acting that makes you want to cry or die of laughter. If you’re anything like me by the end of the movie you’re rooting on the shark more than the main character and not only do you bare the mild nudity and crude humour of some poorly made shark thrillers it almost becomes an endearment. But the shallows has sparked an old love affair with the fear of the ocean and what lies just underneath the surface. This is what every other shark movie can not even begin to compare when it comes to making the audience believe that they are in the water themselves squirming in their seats and that has alot to do with the special effects and i mean the killer itself the living monster, the all love to fear glorified shark.Its been many years since I’ve seen a shark look so realistic and believe me I am not a fan of CGI but this was so visually pleasing I have to comend the film makers on the effort and care to detail. The whole reason low budget shark movies fail to scare their audience is because of the emense set backs in creating a creature to not only look real but to do so in WATER. That is a huge obsticle I don’t think many people realise how much of a challenge it is to create elements realistically like water and fire using CGI and for a shark movie majority of the movie is in water so when I watched the shallows I was blown away by the realism I knew I was in for a long awaited thrill. What also impressed me was the theme the shalllows had made for its viewers. In most shark movies its mostly cheap jump scares and a bunch of unessacrey reasons for the main character to dangle their limbs over the water in hopes to make their audience cringe or squeal but the shallows provoked a deeper terror, accepting your grosome fate. I loved this, being part of the audience watching the tide rise as Nancy must soon face certain death provoked so many emotions that other shark movies have painfully overlooked. There is no greater fear than awaiting death and a horrific one for that matter that it made the final show-down all the more thrilling.I honestly could write pages worth of praise for the thought put into the shallows because for a limited, CGI movie they really had out done themselves. Really probably the best shark movie out to date in the sense of creativeness and realisticness.

    • Jimmy Wong says:

      lilly you must be a studio plant. With that long winded retort to the review. The movie is FULL of CG very obvious she was shot in front of green screen. Not to mention this movie was bad and worst of all BORING!

  4. I’ve always had a fear of sharks, so that was a huge draw for me to see this movie. It was definitely a deterrent from surfing in a hidden beach when no one is around. I felt like the first half of the movie is actually pretty solid from a film/story standpoint. Then it starts to stray away from the realistic aspect that it set up in the first half and starts to get a little absurd. That being said, I thought that the cinematography was great and Blake Lively gave a pretty good performance especially since she was acting alone for 90% of the movie.

  5. Lyle says:

    If the reviewer judges a film by how well the director copies Steven Spielberg, they probably don’t understand that originality is what makes great films.

    Just saying. I liked this film.

  6. Al Generosa says:

    My experience of this movie was to be in a constant state of annoyance: it seems every third shot is stopped, stuttered, slowed, the movie is a stream of jump cuts and crescendo-ing music cues, and over-mixed pounding sound effects. Do the filmmakers have any confidence in an audience that with have an attention-span longer than a flea? The behavior of the shark also has little resemblance to the actual behavior of sharks. It’s silly. I laughed outloud at the climax, and I wasn’t the only one.

  7. josephrgenovese@gmail.com says:

    Was Lively truly cast due to her physique? There have been several interviews with her indicating that she pursued the role because of the acting challenge. An honest critique should revolve around whether or not she was successful at meeting the challenge, not an opinion of how she looked while doing it.

  8. Cindylover1969 says:

    “While the movie goes out of its way to stress that Nancy survives as long as she does because of her intelligence, it’s her beach bod and bikini that will account for 90% of this thriller’s summer box office.”

    And its audience on various viewing platforms in the future.

  9. Peter says:

    Well at least we have 98 mins to stare at the exquisite work in CU some Bev Hills surgeon performed on Blake’s chest, or lackthereof.

  10. rcv says:

    Worst reviewer ever

  11. Francis Swietek says:

    With all due respect, how can this review be labeled as positive on Rotten Tomatoes?

  12. Nick says:

    “Survived as long as she did”
    “the last wave Nacy ever surfs”
    I hope those aren’t the spoliers they sound like…

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