OP-ROB RATING: BUST
“The Shallows” is a 2016 thriller directed by Jaume Collet-Serra and starring Blake Lively as Nancy, a medical school student and surfer on a journey of self-discovery. The film begins as Nancy is driven out to a “secret” beach by an amiable Mexican man named Carlos (Óscar Jaenada). During the ride Nancy explains that her mother came to the beach after becoming pregnant, and the spot is personally special. With the exception of a pair of local guys out in the water, the beach is entirely empty. In the following sequences Nancy enjoys surfing on the crystal clear, blue waves and eventually goes back to the beach for a lunch break. It is at this point that Nancy Facetimes with her father (Brett Cullen) and we discover the mother’s death has prompted an identity crisis, and which may cause her to drop out of medical school. Nancy’s father implores her to return home to Galveston, Texas and explains that she couldn’t have done anything to prevent her mother from succumbing to cancer. Nancy shrugs off her father’s comments and quickly says goodbye before hitting the waves again.
Of course we all know what happens next. “The Shallows” is a shark movie, and during Nancy’s second surfing session she gets bit. After happening upon a dying whale washed up on a reef, Nancy is attacked by a great white shark, presumably drawn into the shallows by the bleeding whale. The attack leaves her with a sizeable bite in her upper thigh. Amazingly, she manages to swim to a small rock landing jutting out of the water. For the vast majority of the film, Nancy is confined to the rock accompanied only by her thoughts, and by a seagull with a broken wing. Although the rock is relatively close to shore, Nancy is too hurt to make the swim, and she must find a way to elude the circling predator.
Nancy’s 24-odd-hour journey back to shore in “The Shallows” involves suturing her thigh with earrings, eating a baby crab, puking the crab, a lot of napping, talking to the seagull, trying to get the attention of a cargo ship, and finally confronting the shark in a climactic scene. While there is certainly a lot going on, none of it is particularly innovative to the shark movie/survival genre. “The Shallows” isn’t based on a true story, either, so it is not as if the movie couldn’t have been more creative. “The Shallows” is not unique as a thriller, or even a shark movie and Collet-Serra resorts to gimmicks like the wounded seagull, and several scenes with social media to bolster the film. In one scene Nancy obtains a flare gun and fires it at the shark. At this point the shark is near the wounded whale, and the whale oil ignites. Before firing the round she exclaims, “Fuck you.” The token “f-word” for the PG-13 rating is all too predictable. Perhaps this was a misfire attempt to pay homage to Roy Scheider’s line in the classic shark blockbuster “Jaws” (In the film, Scheider’s character tells the shark “Smile you son-of-a-bitch” before blasting it out of the water).
Perhaps the worst aspect in “The Shallows” is in the misuse of Blake Lively in the lead role. There is nothing wrong with casting a stunningly gorgeous actress. There is nothing wrong with showing how beautiful she is on camera. But there is a distinct difference between building the beauty around the story, and simply exploiting the physical features of the actor/actress. In “The Revenant” you didn’t find Alejandro G. Iñáritu panning over Leonardo DiCaprio’s abs as he pulled himself through the snow. In Jean-Marc Vallée’s “Wild”, you didn’t see Reese Witherspoon hiking in a sexy outfit just for the audience’s viewing. Granted, those are both top-tier, critically acclaimed films based on true stories, not summer shark thrillers. But there is a distinct tone of physical worship in “The Shallows” that dilutes the quality of the film. The obsession with Lively’s body is evidence of a weak script, and even weaker directing. This misdirection severely hurts the actually important parts of the film, like storyline and character development. But the greatest disservice is toward Blake Lively, who never really gets to act. Even in the scenes where Nancy is suffering immensely, she looks great: And not in a natural way, but in a very intentional and artificial way. There might be four frames in the entire film in which Nancy looks truly destitute.
Maybe I’m missing the point of this film. Maybe it’s supposed to look the way it does. Maybe Blake Lively is totally fine with doing movies like “The Shallows”. Whatever the case, “The Shallows” is not good enough on its own to survive without the constant drooling over its lead actress. Most of the scenes feel distracted, and the entire film crumbles on a rickety plotline. One such massive loophole is that Nancy doesn’t drink any water during her entire fight for survival, how is something so crucial as potable water overlooked? This film is a lazy, cheap, summer thriller starring a popular actress. The real victim of “The Shallows” is not Nancy, but rather the poor soul who bought a ticket.