Director - Jaume Collet-Serra
Cast - Blake Lively
Rating - 3.5/5
Before we begin, let’s strike a deal. Let’s see how long we can last as we discuss The Shallows, a survival thriller about a shark, without bringing up Jaws.
The Shallows is the latest in the assembly line of underseen, underappreciated and altogether undervalued movies by director Jaume Collet-Serra. It is very likely that you do not recognise his name (a regrettable situation that will hopefully be rectified by the time you’re done reading this), but it is just as likely that you’ve seen and enjoyed at least one of his movies.
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Collet-Serra is the reigning king of the B-movie who has most famously directed Liam Neeson in 4 of his late-period action phase films (Unknown, Non-Stop, Run All Night, and the upcoming The Commuter). It’s not an apples to apples comparison, but he’s the man who has quietly ascended the throne that M Night Shyamalan abandoned – at least till the time Night completes his comeback (anytime now, Shyamalamadingdong).
So what makes a good survival thriller? I saved you the trouble and decided on 3 essential points. The first is the central character. It always helps if the hunted protagonist is real, relatable and ideally, not a jerk – because who wants to spend 2 hours rooting for a selfish scumbag who leaves his friends to die and makes all the dumb moves? Answer: No one. Case in point: That guy Money in Don’t Breathe. No tears were shed at his demise.
Luckily, The Shallows is lean and mean. It clocks in at 86 minutes and the central character (played with above-the-title moviestarness by Blake Lively, who’s having a great 2016, with this, and a very graceful performance in Woody Allen’s Café Society) is a resourceful medical student. So whenever she gets injured (which happens often), our heroine Matt Damons her way through every gash, crack and jellyfish sting.
The second essential ingredient of every survival thriller is the set-up. The premise needs to be clearly spelled out. The audience needs to be minutely aware of the characters’ predicament, their environment, the geography of the location, every resource that’s available to them and every potential obstacle that might present itself.
And once again, The Shallows has it covered. Here’s the set-up in a nutshell. Still in mourning from her mother’s death, Nancy (Blake Lively’s character) arrives at her mother’s favourite place: A beach paradise in Mexico where she, Nancy’s mom, first discovered she was pregnant with her. It’s paradise, says the friendly man who drives her there. And through cinematographer Flavio Labiano’s lens, it really is. But beneath the gorgeous blue waters lurks a shark – and a particularly mean one at that.
During a surfing session, the shark attacks Nancy, leaves her stranded on a rock 200 metres from the shore, alone and injured. She can’t swim to safety, but can see it. She can’t get off the rock, but must come up with a plan soon because the impending high tide will submerge it.
How’s that for a killer set-up?
In my viewing experience, there have been only four survival thrillers over the last couple of decades that have managed to transcend the genre. The Edge (starring Anthony Hopkins and a bear), The Grey (starring Liam Neeson and wolves), Frozen (not the one with Elsa, but the one in which three friends are stranded on a ski-lift with, once again, wolves, snapping at their heels) and the film that probably inspired Blake Lively to take this on: Buried (starring her husband Ryan Reynolds trapped in a coffin for 90 minutes).
The Shallows is number 5.
It’s a magnificently crafted film, tightly paced, impeccably cut, with tense direction, just enough drama to anchor it all, and a livewire of a Blake Lively performance to keep it afloat when it threatens to get swept under the current.
And now for the third and final point that defines this subgenre. You see, there is no place for superheroics in movies like this. It’s somewhat of an unwritten rule that it can only be the character’s wit that should save them. So without spoiling anything about its third act, let me just say this: The Shallows is a good movie – in fact, it’s an outstanding B-movie – but it’s not a ‘great movie’. Why? Because after treading water successfully for 80 minutes, it quite literally jumps the shark.
Maddeningly, the film… well, lives up to its title: The Shallows. And don’t be surprised if in a few years it’s referred to as ‘that Blake Lively shark movie.’ What I’m trying to say is that The Shallows isn’t too deep – not that it has to be – but maybe making the shark more than just a two-dimensional monster could’ve helped? We never quite understand why it is so threatened by Lively’s ‘LA face and Oakland booty’ and yes, this is nitpicking, but when a film comes this close to being great, and just falls short, it’s aggravating.
Now let’s congratulate ourselves for passing the Jaws test.