Film Review | Blood in the water

The Shallows has drawn some comparisons to Alfonso Cuaron’s 2013 movie Gravity

Bitten bloody: Blake Lively engages in the eternal battle between humanity and nature in this slick shark-thriller
Bitten bloody: Blake Lively engages in the eternal battle between humanity and nature in this slick shark-thriller

Sharks could very well be credited with the creation of the blockbuster as we know it. Back in the 1970s, when American cinema was experiencing an inspiring and unprecedented turn towards deep and gritty movies enjoying mainstream success, along came one of the number of this cinematic ‘brat pack’ to spoil it all. 

That man was Steven Spielberg, and the movie in question was Jaws (1975). Made on something of a shoestring budget which forbade the filmmakers to show the iconic shark as often as they’d wished, the film’s financial shortcomings turned out to be a blessing in disguise as – coupled with John Williams’s equally memorable soundtrack – Spielberg was able to manipulate the tension to full hilt, only showing the shark when it was absolutely necessary and leaving the audience – generations of them – on tenterhooks. 

Not only did this spawn the blockbuster format as we know it – with a little help from Steve’s friend George, whose contribution to the burgeoning phenomenon was a little film called Star Wars (1977) – it also by necessity spawned a slew of imitators (some of which, like Orca, were filmed in Malta, incidentally). 

The latest of these is Jaume Collet-Serra’s The Shallows, which is not just another iteration of the genre jazzed-up for the instant-messaging generation… it’s also very much a vehicle for its star, Blake Lively.

After losing her mother to cancer – and much to her father’s chagrin – lapsed Texan medical student Nancy (Lively) decides to take a trip to the secluded Mexican beach that held a special place in her mother’s heart. But while surfing is all she hopes to do during this strange and idyllic pilgrimage, a sudden shark attack aims to put a complete damper on those plans.

The Shallows has drawn some comparisons to Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity (2013), and if we swap the stars with the sea, it’s easy to see why. Like Sandra Bullock’s drifting astronaut, Lively’s Nancy has to contend with both a looming physical threat and the burden of her past – in this case, coming to terms with her mother’s death. Unfortunately, as was the case with Gravity, this feels like a tacked-on piece of ‘character development’ intended to add some humanity to Lively’s stranded Southern belle. More to the point, the otherwise perfectly serviceable genre director Colmet-Serra (Non-Stop, Run All Night) isn’t exactly capable of scaling the heights traversed by an auteur like Cuaron.

The first half meanders a little bit, offering filler where tension-building should be. A spot of wave-hunting between Nancy and two fellow surfers she meets turns out to be particularly misjudged, with Colmet-Serra shooting the proceedings in an aesthetic that feels like at Pepsi advert from the 90s.

But things improve substantially once the shark finally reveals itself, even if iffy moments abound. The decision to have an injured seagull perched on the little island that Nancy finds herself on is cute for a few minutes, but gets old soon after. Also, while we can accept that Nancy talks to herself in moments of genuine panic, the ‘running commentary’ she does for our benefit stretches plausibility in a film that appears to value its stripped-down grittiness, at least to a point. 

Still, it’ll make for an entertaining – if not sublimely horrifying – couple of hours, and it can boast of a simple B-movie structure that is absent from most crammed tentpole blockbusters these days. It may not be the dramatic breakthrough the otherwise plucky and archetypally beautiful Lively is looking for, but as a late summer sea-scare, it’ll do.