“The Shallows” Movie Review


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     Fictional stories about sharks are always a tough nut to crack given the inevitable comparison to Steven Spielberg’s 1975 blockbuster “Jaws” and the high standard which that film set for any filmmaker who dares enter the realm of these feared ocean predators.  Perhaps adding to the difficulty is the popularity of “Shark Week”, which begs the question, why would we want to see something fictional when we can tune in to the Discovery Channel and see actual real life stories and shark footage that is real, rather than animated in a computer?  Maybe that’s why shark movies are now few and far between.  And maybe that’s exactly the reason director Jaume Collet-Serra (“Non-Stop”, “Unknown”) thought now was the perfect time to strike with “The Shallows”, a taut and gripping suspense thriller that successfully expands the genre beyond the typical shark encounter film.  Bottom line is, if you come to the table with a quality product, audiences will come and Collet-Serra seems to have found just the right kind of story to both pay homage to key sequences in “Jaws”, but also sets itself apart with a smart script by Anthony Jaswinski that treats the audience with an appreciated level of intelligence since the filmmakers know we’ve experienced these scenarios before.

     Blake Lively (“Savages”, “The Town”) stars as Nancy, a medical school student who recently lost her mother to cancer.  When we catch up with her, she’s en route to a secret beach whose location was passed on to her by her mother.  It is said her mother surfed at this beach when she was pregnant with Nancy, and the truck ride through the jungle with a local provides plenty of time for her to share a slideshow of photos with us that feature her mother posing at the very destination she is now preparing to arrive at.  For Nancy, coming here is a sort of tribute to her mother, who told her the beach is some of the best and most private surfing in the world.  Collet-Serra enhances these initial scenes by pasting the photos, text threads, and video chats Nancy is engaging in on screen next to her, so as to keep us informed of every detail in Nancy’s life leading up to her catching a couple glorious waves.

     Of course, an obvious plot hole at this point is the fact Nancy has the kind of cell phone reception that would allow her to have crystal clear video chat conversations with her father (Brett Cullen) and sister, Chloe (Sedona Legge) even though she’s on a secluded beach miles from civilization in an unnamed third world country.  But we can let that minor discrepancy go since the thrust of the story doesn’t actually involve her phone which is left on the beach in her backpack.  Nancy begins paddling out to sea on her surf board and meets a pair of fellow surfers who seem surprised she knew of this beach.  Collet-Serra takes full advantage of the  beautiful surroundings, photographing the three surfers as they move under and over waves with both precision and fluidity.  We get shots from underwater perspectives, as well as over head, indicating the kind of clear blue water that can only be described as a paradise.  When her fellow surfers decide to call it a day, Nancy decides to swim back out and catch one more wave, which of course sets the plot in motion.

     As Nancy arrives at the point where she would begin surfing the waves back towards the beach, she encounters the fresh remains of a dead whale floating near by.  And that’s when the shark fin appears.  For those expecting to hear John Williams’ famous “Jaws” film score at that point, you’ll have to wait until you get home and pop in the Blu-ray.  Instead, the filmmakers create a situation where a now bitten and bleeding Nancy finds safety on a rock formation that has become visible due to low tide.  She’s only a couple hundred yards of shore, but the presence of the dead whale and her now profusely bleeding leg means she is being circled by a great white shark right in the middle of its feeding area.  She sees a buoy a short 30 yards away from her, but knows getting there could prove fatal.  There’s also the problem of time in that the coming high tide will eventually re-cover the rock formation with water, leaving her with few options.

     One of the strengths of Jaswinki’s script is the unpredictable nature of Nancy’s decision making throughout the ordeal.  Several times during her encounter, I felt confused as to why she would do or attempt to do certain things because at face value, they didn’t make sense.  But then her experience and knowledge would shine through and prove there was always a method to her madness.  Now not all of her quick thinking actually helped her avoid becoming the shark’s next meal, but she does manage just enough ingenuity to stay alive longer than you’d expect from someone faced with such peril.  It’s worth mentioning that Lively’s performance is nothing short of outstanding, especially when you consider she is on screen alone for 95% of the movie.

     Just as Spielberg did in “Jaws” and Ridley Scott did so effectively in “Alien”, Collet-Serra keeps his monster hidden for most of the film and ultimately gives it very little screen time.  And that strategy works well, because we always know the threat is there, even when we don’t actually see it.  When Nancy eventually does make it to the buoy, the filmmakers would have you think she was planning on taking a page out of the “Jaws” playbook only to reverse course and come up with one of the most thrilling and suspenseful thirds acts that I have seen in quite sometime.  This is especially the case with imagery that can only be described as terrifying, particularly when Nancy realizes there are other obstacles in the water besides the shark.  At a minimum, those last 20 minutes or so will have you at the edge of your seat, even if the conclusion may be a little tough to swallow.  GRADE: B