Review: The Shallows
On the surface, The Shallows is a thoroughly competent thriller that extends the lineage of Jaws. It does everything it needs to do to create a sense of dread and terror for its protagonist and succinctly presents both the events of the film and the humanity of its main character. However, if you dip a metaphorical toe beneath the surface, there are definite problems here, no matter how tightly the story is told.
The film opens with one of those 'begin at the end' sequences that shows the terror of a GoPro-captured moment we return to later in the film. The basic setup is that Nancy (played by Blake Lively), a twenty-something surfer looking to escape, finds her way to a secluded beach in Mexico. The beach was said to be her late mother's favorite and Nancy needs this excursion as she tries to figure out what to do with her life. Through phone conversations with her sister and father, we learn that she is considering dropping out of medical school, seemingly shaken by the death of her mother.
After a brief time catching the best waves of her life, Nancy is attacked by a shark and suffers a leg injury. Too injured to swim back to shore, she seeks refuge on a small rock formation that juts out above the water during low tide. The next hour is something of a cat and mouse game between she and the shark, as she tries to figure out how to make it back to shore safely.
Over the course of the film, Nancy's resilience is obvious and it is refreshing to see a self-reliant female character work her way through her situation rather than relying on some male savior. My issues with the film have almost nothing to do with Nancy, who is a pretty fully-realized character whose motivations and desires are nuanced and pronounced. Where the film runs into trouble is not having a single other fully-formed character.
Nancy is in Mexico, which means interaction with native people, which means Hollywood will screw it up. Those native people are given little else to do other than chauffeur, welcome, and attempt to rescue Nancy. When one of them faces peril, it is only given gravity vis-a-vis that peril's impact on Nancy. Will they still be able to save her? Is she going to be able to make it home safely? The fact that the film seems so completely disinterested in whether anyone else is going to make it home safely is a definite flaw. These brown faces don't necessarily have to be disregarded in this way for the film to remain effective, but that is the choice the filmmakers made.
The film also suffers from some prisoner of the moment elements. It tries to project cutting edge, but its already dated Instagram integration was a poor choice that will severely date the film in the very near future. The reasons they used these techniques were all valid--everything from creating a connection with her deceased mother to counting down the seconds as she swam to safety. Because the technique works on a dramatic level, they get a pass, but it certainly will make the film feel like a relic of the past in a few short years.
As would be evident from the marketing, the film includes amazing visuals--with awesome sports photography, engrossing underwater shots and Lonely Planet-worthy landscapes. It also includes at least one decent character worth tuning in for. Overall, it is well-paced and thoughtful thriller that does what it sets out to do. It just would have been a stronger effort if it had set out to do a little more.
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