Saturday, 20 August 2016

The Shallows

Over the past half-decade, the lone-actor, often single-location survival film genre has taken off with films like Moon, Buried, 127 Hours, Life of Pi, Gravity, and for me the most memorable; All is Lost. On the opposite side of the spectrum, we arguably haven’t seen a truly great (non-parody) shark film in recent memory. Jaume Collet-Serra’s tries to bring those two concepts together with The Shallows.

Nancy Adams (Blake Lively) is a medical student who’s travelling to a secluded Mexican beach that her late mother had surfed at after finding out that she was pregnant with her. With the help of a local, Carlos (├ôscar Jaenada), Nancy reaches the beach, meets two other locals, and cue surfing montage. It begins to get late and the locals head home, but Nancy stays out to catch one last wave. Unfortunately for her, a great white shark catches her first. Her left leg is badly chewed, but she manages to make it to a small reef that’s exposed at low tide and treat her leg as best as possible. But the tide’s coming in, nobody knows she’s there, and the shark is still circling.

Let’s start with the positives. The Shallows displays Collet-Serra’s expert grasp of tension-building. We saw it in Non-Stop and it’s almost as effective here, where every desperate swim Nancy makes comes down to the wire. Whilst this becomes a fairly obvious technique, it never-the-less is able to keep you at least near to the edge of your seat. The film also borrows heavily from that squirmy ‘nerve’ scene in 127 Hours, except Collet-Serra spreads it out across The Shallows. As such, you get plenty of points where the audiovisual bombardment builds a ‘grinding-your-teeth’ level visceral experience. The main body of the film overall is actually pretty well-constructed.

However, as soon as Collet-Serra tries to attach a strong character and story to the action, The Shallows starts to show its weaknesses. I talked about a predicted trend of films that pander to a GoPro/action-cam audience in my review of the pitiful Point Break remake, and this is another of those sorts of films. Not only is a GoPro central to the plot of the film, but Nancy Adams is one of those ‘let’s drop out of university and go live life on a beach because YOLO’ sorts of people that I find particularly annoying. I’m sure others will have the opposite reaction, and I suppose it’s my fault for going to see a film about a sport that I tend to stereotype as full of douche-bags, but it doesn’t do much to draw an outside audience like myself to empathise with the characters. Speaking of stereotypes, the sleepy/drunk/layabout Mexican cliche gets thrown about a surprising amount in The Shallows, particularly in a horrifically comic scene, so take from that what you will.

A lot of the back story is told through an exposition heavy FaceTime call that Nancy makes before entering the water, and in general there’s a lot of annoying showing off with social-media overlays throughout the setup of the film. The story and characters didn’t do anything for me - although Blake Lively’s performance is surprisingly good considering this - and the climax is a little too conceited to really pay off. There are little frustrating moments like a way-too pandering tribute to the Jaws finale as well as a tacked-on epilogue that felt like it was tying up loose ends and tinging the film with a carpe diem message that it would have been stronger without.

The Shallows was filmed in our very own neck of the woods in New South Wales, Australia and around Lord Howe Island. I was surprised to read that a lot of the film was done in a tank because if this film exceeds at one thing it’s making the location feel real. Apart from the odd ridiculous shot and far too much drone footage, this is a really good looking film, especially in its use of space and minimalism. They also make sure that those who go to see The Shallows for Blake Lively in a bikini certainly get a lot of...ermm..content.

The Shallows is a decent popcorn thriller when it sticks to being just that. If you can suffer through the sob-stories, millennial pandering, and the poorly fleshed-out characters, you’ll find a good handful of enjoyable moments, just don’t expect it to be next Jaws.

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