The Shallows (2016)
Rated PG-13 for bloody images, intense sequences of peril, and brief strong language
Score: 3 out of 5
The Shallows is a movie that I wasn't expecting much from, but it's one that I'm still glad I saw. The second trailer seemed to give away the entire film, and while Blake Lively is a gorgeous woman (as seen in the poster above), I've never been particularly a fan of her as an actor. When I saw this with my dad, we were just hoping for a decent, scary shark flick, and we got our money's worth and then some. Maybe it's just low expectations, but The Shallows surprised me. It was an intense, non-stop film that's anchored by what's probably the best performance I've ever seen from Lively, enough to make up for some fairly crappy special effects in the third act. It's an old-fashioned B-movie that somehow got a prime summer release date usually reserved for blockbuster action films, and I'm definitely not complaining.
Lively plays Nancy, a medical student from Texas who travels to a remote, picturesque beach in Mexico to go surfing, her recently deceased mother having surfed there in the past when she was pregnant with her. What follows is pretty straightforward: Nancy gets bit by a shark that sees her as intruding on its turf (namely, the whale carcass that it was feasting on before she showed up), and she finds herself stranded on a rock outcropping with an injured leg a couple hundred yards from shore, her only company being a seagull with a damaged wing and a nearby buoy that she can swim to and possibly call for help from. Other surfers in the area get attacked and eaten, the tide is slowly rising such that it'll wash her off the rock, and the shark is still pissed off. Time is running out.
When I first saw the trailer, I complained that it spoiled the whole movie, but the truth is, there's really not a whole lot to spoil. The entire plot can be summed up in three words: woman versus shark. And at the same time, the trailer never showed the ending of the film, meaning that it was always up in the air whether or not Nancy was going to succeed in her fight. Even if she does kill the shark, will she make it out in one piece, die trying, or survive, only to need her badly-damaged leg amputated after? The fact that I cared at all about Nancy's struggle largely came down to the actor playing her, Blake Lively. Not only does she absolutely nail the "surfer girl" look -- tall, blonde, tanned, toned, and spending 95% of the film in a swimsuit -- she also gets a real character to work with. We start out learning that Nancy recently lost her mother to cancer, an experience that's made her consider dropping out of med school and driven a wedge between her and her father. After all, if her mother's willpower combined with the talents of some of the best doctors couldn't save her, then why should she even bother becoming a doctor herself? Her fight with the shark is as much about her rediscovering the strength to move on with her life as it is about her trying to not get eaten, as she uses everything she learned from her classes to treat her wounds, protect herself, and fight her way to safety. When she's fixing the seagull's dislocated wing, for example, it's as much about proving to herself "yes, I can do this" as it is about finding something to do while she's waiting for the shark to move away from her rock. It's a simple arc, but Lively, in what's basically a one-woman show for most of the film's runtime, succeeds in carrying it to the finish.
Director Jaume Collet-Serra also does a good job with this film on the technical side. His direction was one of the few things I liked about last year's otherwise execrable Liam Neeson vehicle Run All Night, and here, he's actually got something good to work with. It pushes the limits of the PG-13 rating by implying, and even showing brief glimpses of, all manner of horrors that the shark inflicts, including Nancy's bite wound, a great "air jaws" moment of the shark leaping out and grabbing a surfer, and even a guy who's been bitten in half. The shark is wisely kept just offscreen for most of the film, seen only in glimpses, a move that's reminiscent of Jaws and, like that film, helps to establish the big fish's menace. This is a film that's PG-13 by design, and doesn't feel like it had been edited down by the studio in order to pander to a teenage audience. The tropical setting looks beautiful for much of the film, but at the same time, it turns intense later on when rain clouds start forming on the horizon, or in a gorgeous yet thrilling scene where Nancy is swimming through a field of jellyfish. The only thing that isn't so hot is, oddly enough, the shark itself. It's clear that this film wasn't working with a big budget, and while Collet-Serra, to his credit, manages to find plenty of ways around having to actually show the shark for 75% of the film, he has to show it eventually, and it's at that point where things started to get ridiculous. The shark is a CG creature, and it's obvious in how it both looks and moves, enough that it became a distraction. When it started biting off chunks of the buoy, I rolled my eyes, and one scene in particular, while downright awesome on a conceptual level, felt like something out of a slightly-bigger-budgeted SyFy original movie due to the special effects and the execution. It was a crazy-awesome moment, to be sure, but a step down from the remarkable thriller that came before it.
The Bottom Line:
Even with a weak third act marred by bad special effects, this is still a worthwhile matinee. It's about time we got another good "serious" shark movie to go with comedies like the Sharknado films. Not a whole lot more to say about this straightforward survival horror flick, except that it's a solid entry in the canon of "wild animals gone wild" flicks.