‘The Shallows’ is an unusually Lively summer blockbuster, using thrills and chills to balance out a slightly insubstantial story.
Every horror film has to walk a very fine line – that between scoff-inducingly silly and genuinely terrifying. Only the truly despairing and dark horror films have completely done away with the silly aspects. Even the best of the best such as ‘The Exorcist’ and ‘Psycho’ walk a tightrope between what the audience may find at first amusing and what they may eventually find consistently terrifying.
The Shallows, the new Jaume Collet-Serra-directed, Blake Lively-on-a surfboard-in-a-bikini-attacked-by-a-shark movie, walks the tightrope of this line remarkably well, successfully balancing the silly and the scary. A giant great white shark leaping out of the water induces both an incredulous laugh and the knee-jerk jolt of a theme park ride, proving ‘The Shallows’ to be great fun, manufactured to do exactly what it needs to do. Thus, when we view a moment in which Blake Lively’s character calls her seagull companion ‘Steven Seagull’ it’s safe to remind ourselves that, yes, no matter how goofy and funnily unfunny ‘The Shallows’ is, it is a film that knows what it’s doing.
Opening with an over-directed music video style and laying on the exposition in thick swashes, ‘The Shallows’ takes a few missteps before eventually gaining its footing. Yes, the glittering water looks nice and yes, the editing and cinematography are appropriately flashy, but it’s not until Lively is left all on her own that ‘The Shallows’ really kicks into gear. The last two-thirds of this roller coaster ride are a well-oiled machine, pushing us breathlessly from one scenario to the next. It’s at once ludicrously silly and thrillingly spare – stripped down to the very basics that you need in a film. You have a protagonist to root for, a goal for the protagonist to reach and something in the way. That’s really all there is to ‘The Shallows’ and, given that it works, it’s a breath of fresh air amidst the excess on display in modern multiplexes.
‘The Shallows’ was always going to sink or float with the lead performance: cast it wrong and we are left with an empty scenario. Luckily, Blake Lively, for all her faults as an actress, is the right choice for the main role. Lively’s acting is never going to set the world on fire. She’s always been a bit of a placeholder actress – her performances are nothing terrible but she’s never had much of a presence. Where she ultimately succeeds in ‘The Shallows’ is in her innate likability, proving to be quite an easy figure to root for. In the end, that’s the only connection that ‘The Shallows’ requires us to make with her. Sure, she is given a shaky backstory and a motivation to make it through to the end but the connections we make to her character comes not from her acting abilities but from the certain sense of charisma she maintains.
Surprisingly, given how little there is to the film’s plot and script, the situation and the set pieces that come out of it are fairly creative. ‘Steven Seagull’ is as great as you may have heard but I was struck by how much memorable imagery is pulled from a rock, the surrounding ocean and the beach in the distance. The colorful aura of ‘The Shallows’ is as vibrant as we’ve seen from a blockbuster in quite a while. The coral reef stands out strikingly against the crystal blues of the water around Lively and her crimson blood bleeds across the screen in the best possible way. In addition, the underwater cinematography is pretty fantastic and, especially towards the end of the film, pulls off some incredibly striking images. One ordeal in the film’s finale is lit with glowing and hypnotic vibrancy, crafting a surreal, gorgeous island in an ocean of terse, tense sequences. Of course, disrupting these serenely beautiful images is a one-shark wrecking crew, doing everything he can to get that tasty morsel of food hiding just above the surface.
Taking a page from the Book of Jaws, ‘The Shallows’ knows how to use its shark – that’s sparingly, of course. It’s a true force of nature and, like the workings of the forces beyond our control, it spends the majority of the time out of our sight. When visible, the CGI work is surprisingly fantastic, with the few close-ups being intensely detailed and genuinely terrifying. As an entity, the shark is a deft mix of brains and brawn. It’s intimidating in a multitude of ways, never falling prey to the easy trappings of other shark films. What ‘Jaws’ understood is that you don’t really need to make a shark more terrifying than it actually is. No need for genetic modification or even more than one shark (certainly not a tornado full of them). Just one realistically intellectual, resourceful and brutal force. There are even a few instances where that blank stare described by Quint is put to great use, proving that nothing is more terrifying than what the world has to offer.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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