Review: The Shallows

Nancy (Blake Lively) in Columbia Pictures' THE SHALLOWS.

The Shallows poster - AustraliaAn intense series of moments chronicling survival against the odds as Blake Lively carries this skillful thriller.

Jaws has a lot to answer for. In the four decades since Steve Spielberg elevated drive-ins to blockbusters, countless sharks have taken bites out of unsuspecting swimmers. There’s been Tintorera! and The Last Shark (clearly a misnomer). We’ve gone Beyond the Reef and into the Deep Blue Sea. Sharks have even taken our tornadoes and made them their own. With THE SHALLOWS, director Jaume Collet-Serra (Orphan, Non-Stop) manages to provide the audience with a genuine point of difference, and a taut thriller that grips viewers from beginning to end.

Anthony Jaswinski’s script takes the form of a survivalist horror film, as medical student Nancy Adams (Blake Lively) heads to a secret Mexican beach to surf. The place holds significance to her because her recently deceased mother surfed there when she was younger. However, she soon finds herself alone in the water as a massive great white shark, attracted by the corpse of a whale, attacks her. Stranded on a rock and injured, Nancy must survive the elements and the constantly circling shark if she is to ever make it ashore again.

Using the brief running time to its advantage, Collet-Serra’s film of contrasts maintains a tension even when there is no immediate threat. Before the shark’s presence becomes apparent, the peacefulness of the idyllic Mexican beach (actually in and around Australia’s Queensland, gloriously showcased with overhead shots by cinematographer Flavio Labiano) is undercut by underwater shots looking upwards, always reminding us there is something sinister waiting beneath the surface. The incredible stillness of the film is sharply punctuated by attacks and attempts to escape, as the film becomes a series of small victories and challenges that never cease their escalation. Nancy can see the shore from where she is stuck, but that seemingly short distance becomes an impossible chasm thanks to the ever-present menace.

Nancy (Blake Lively) in Columbia Pictures' THE SHALLOWS.

Lively, continuing her return to centre stage following last year’s The Age of Adaline, is given the difficult task of holding the entire film together in what is effectively a solo show. Defying the convention of the hapless horror victim, Lively’s character uses her medical training to help her survive, along with a surprisingly endearing set of conversations with a seagull she dubs Steven Seagal. The gaze always remains on Lively, and it is through that transfixed stare that much of the sheer terror of the film is derived. There’s the body horror of her self-suturing her wounded leg, along with powerfully effective chills as the camera never leaves Lively’s deeply disturbed reactions as someone is devoured off-camera. There’s a clever use of social media and video footage floating on-screen that gives us all the backstory we need without the burden of exposition, and the other characters that briefly appear mostly serve to add something to Nancy’s journey.

There are gratuitous shots of Lively in a bikini, of course, and the climax certainly relies on the over-the-top triumphs we’ve come to expect from these clashes with nature. Despite these indulgences, THE SHALLOWS is one of the most laser-focused features of recent memory, skillfully avoiding showing us the beast until it has maximum impact. Whether this starts a whole new generation of copycats as Jaws did forty years ago is yet to be seen, but Collet-Serra has certainly spilled the blood in the water and set the challenge for the next aquatic troublemaker to begin its feeding frenzy.

2016 | US | DIR: Jaume Collet-Serra | WRITER: Anthony Jaswinski | CAST: Blake Lively, Óscar Jaenada, Brett Cullen, Sedona Legge | RUNNING TIME: 86 minutes | DISTRIBUTOR: Sony Pictures (AUS) | RATING: ★★★★