Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Cast: Blake Lively
Plot: Nancy (Lively) visits a secret beach her late mum discovered aboard, only for her surfing trip to get terrorised by a malicious and determined shark.
Shark movies have got to be up there with my biggest pet peeves. I love sharks to pieces. I think they are majestic, beautiful creatures, their magnificence only amplified by the fact they are one of the deadliest creatures on planet Earth. The idea of a shark movie is wonderful to me, tying in the threat levels of such a intelligent, agile animal and adding the scenic backdrop of a Mediterranean beach somewhere. In theory, I would be happy spending the rest of my life watching nothing but shark movies. Except for one problem. They’re all shit. Other than Spielberg’s labour of love, Jaws (and perhaps Deep Blue Sea, if you are in the mood), shark movies are famously bad. We all know the type of B Movie that I have endlessly reviewed on this blog, hoping to find a stray good one. They either copy and paste the familiar tricks that Spielberg used or turn their flick into a bloodbath, shoe-horning in bikini-clad bimbos and red shirts that can’t act. Even worse, there are some clear fixes to the problems with each movie that I am always repeating in these reviews. Thankfully, The Shallows seems to follow my train of thoughts and, while not touching the godfather of shark movies, it comes a close, respectable second place.
The easy fix is casting characters we actually like. Too many shark movies are spent trapped with lifeless actors and stereotypes with the job of ending up a shark brunch in Act Two. Jaume Collet-Serra fixes both issues and dials his cast right down to one, charismatic actor: Blake Lively. Right from the start, she ticks every box your lead needs to. She is a normal holiday-goer with just enough back-story to flesh her out, without making her an overly complex persona. Lively uses natural charisma to win over her audience. The first five minutes see her chatting with a friendly local about a tourist-free beach and as she struggles valiantly to nail the foreign language, we instantly fall in love with her. Don’t let the covers fool you: yes, it helps that she is a gorgeous twenty-something blonde girl that spends the entire movie in various states of undress, only the cynical viewer would call her a shameless excuse for eye candy. As the movie develops, she becomes a resourceful heroine. In a few brisk beats, we learn that she is a nursing student, debating dropping out, which gives her that slight medical knowledge that saves her life in the midway point of the film. Perhaps the self-surgery scene has been done a few too many times before in cinema now, but it does the job of nailing her down as that bad-ass survivor, especially as she is often armed with only the resources around her. Blake Lively is outstanding, mainly due to the fact that she shoulders any entire feature film on her own, but never feels like she is working too hard at it. There is no melodramatic attempts at making this a character piece, too much drama stealing from the tension of the piece. She both impresses, but understands that she needs to let the film breathe and do its own thing. Its the character’s will to survive that truly astounds. There will be no shark movie staple of the girl helplessly breaking down and waiting for one of the hunky surfers we saw a few scenes previous to help her out. The movie takes its time getting there, but it easily sets up the main event to be a climatic showdown between woman and shark. The finale does not disappoint.
Let’s move onto the second major thing that all other shark movies mess up: the shark. Directors keep making the same mistake that the viewers want to see as much of the shark as possible. The truth is less is more. For one, most movie sharks look a bit naff. Spielberg’s Jaws was a technical nightmare, so he was forced to play with suspense over full-on action. A lot of B Movies cross their fingers that the audiences won’t mind the limited CGI. The Shallows is aware that its own shark isn’t the best animated thing out there. Its close-ups are good, but we can tell that this is an animated shark throughout the whole piece. However, Collet-Serra keeps it in the shadows for the majority of his movie, learning from the mistakes of others. It helps his cinematographer has an eye for the surfing scenes, the camera so gloriously drifting over Lively catching the waves, that we aren’t in any particular rush to even introduce the shark. When it does appear, it spends most of its screen time hidden, the main thrill of the movie wondering where it is lurking next. It is a sinister fin in the distance at best. Some of the kills in this movie are done artistically, one death focusing on Lively’s face, rather than the poor red shirt getting ripped apart. This early on in the film might worry viewers that we might not even see the shark in all of its glory, but do not fret: Jaume Collet-Serra is simply saving that for later. The movie does have its share of cliches. The shark in particular has the motivation of an over-eager Bond villain, so heartlessly riveted on this one particular girl that you half expect a mid-act back story, where Blake Lively killed its parents on a fishing trip to crop up. Allow for that silliness however and you do get a terrifyingly violent shark that will keep you riveted to the screen for the entire running time. There is also fun to be had from the sidekick seagull that kills some of the realism, but also steals the best laughs. It is all about balancing the fun with the intelligence. Taking the audience on an entertaining ride, without assuming they are daft. The Shallows is a movie that meets you halfway and as a result, it is one of the more entertaining films I have seen in 2016. Highly recommended.
Final Verdict: Just when we gave up hope in the shark movie, along comes the Shallows. Here’s to the barrage of awful sequels.