A film review by Craig J. Koban July 1, 2016


2016, PG-13, 87 mins.


Blake Lively as Mia  /  Óscar Jaenada as Carlos  /  Sedona Legge as Chloe  /  Brett Cullen as Father

Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra  /  Written by Anthony Jaswinski

The new outdoor human survival horror thriller THE SHALLOWS is a prime example of what I like to call a "PWP Film"…or "a film that contains a premise without a payoff."  

The overall setup of this film is wonderfully and intriguingly minimalist: A young woman that’s enjoying the surf finds herself stranded on a rock formation hundreds of yards away from the beach and battles a rather ravenous and vengeful shark the size of a truck.  That’s basically it.  THE SHALLOWS has the core ingredients to be a truly immersive and genuinely nerve-wracking experience at the multiplexes, not to mention that it has a thanklessly committed performance by Blake Lively as the aforementioned surfer that spends most of the film playing opposite of herself (and a stranded and wounded bird).  That, and the film is trying to return the shark attack genre back to something genuinely horrifying and away from the SHARKNADO-like schlockfests that occupy cable TV. 

The film has ample talent on board in front of and behind the camera; THE SHALLOWS was directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, who previously made three quite solid Liam Neeson action thrillers (NON-STOP, UNKNOWN, and RUN ALL NIGHT) and he really knows how to capture the wondrous geographical beauty of its lush and scenic locations (not to mention the wonders of Blake Lively’s equally awe inspiring sun tanned and bikini clad form).  The main problem, though, with this suspense thriller is that it never really delivers on its requisite promises of genuinely scaring audience members, nor are there any lingering moments of tangible suspense beyond the telegraphed and manufactured kind.  Plus, for a thriller that tries to ground itself in the immediacy and veracity of its moment, THE SHALLOWS really wallows in some third act preposterousness that would make many a marine biologist cringe in their cinema chair.  Ironically, this film is trying to echo the original JAWS, but ends up pathetically miming JAWS: THE REVENGE when it comes to marine life psychology. 



Talking about the overall plot of THE SHALLOWS almost seems like a redundant exercise considering how sparse and economical it’s trying to be, but screenwriter Anthony Jaswinski perplexingly has little faith in the underlining premise of his story and instead feels the need to shoehorn in extra melodramatic touches regarding the woman’s past and present day family strife that never really compliments the film in any agreeable manner.  The narrative follows Nancy (a never been better Blake Lively) as she journeys to secluded Mexican beach that has no apparent name and is unknown to everyone that hasn’t discovered it.  It appears that she is there to honor her dead mother’s memory, whom years ago went to this same beach while she was pregnant with her.  I would like to think that her memory would be best honored if Nancy didn't abandon her father and sister and quit medical school to peruse some killer waves (as revealed in some clunky exposition), but I digress. 

Anyhoo’, Nancy does make it to the location, drinks in all of its epic natural beauty, and partakes in some soul cleansing surfing.  At one point, though, when all alone and 200 yards off shore she notices the floating and bloody corpse of a whale that very much looks like it was attacked by…something.  Without much warning, Nancy herself is attacked by a great white shark that obviously made the whale its mid-day meal.  She does manage to swim towards a small islet that’s roughly a dozen feet in diameter, where she finds some relief from a second attack.  There are two large problems: (1) Her leg got nearly gnawed off by the shark and (2) she’s simply too far away from the mainland to be able to swim to it without being easily attacked again.  Oh, make that three problems: the high tide is about to arrive in precisely 12 hours, making her time on the islet limited.  How do we know that it’s exactly 12 hours?  Because we constantly see a digital countdown of the event on her watch. 

On a positive, THE SHALLOWS is trying at least to return this genre back to some semblance of serious respectability.  It transparently riffs on other shark/outdoor survival films like, yes, JAWS, and to smaller degrees the brilliant and masterful OPEN WATER and ALL IS LOST with sprinkles of 127 HOURS mixed in.  Considering how many other similar films – ones that are bloated, silly, and misguided – that surround THE SHALLOWS, I commend the makers here for attempting something of a solemn and frightening tone.  The film also looks exquisitely sensational and many of the bravura surfing sequences contained within it are indeed breathtakingly sumptuous and exhilarating (even though Serra is guilty at time of being a bit too laughably voyeuristic with his camera when it comes to ogling Lively’s amazonian visage for the film’s own good at times).  Nevertheless, THE SHALLOWS does an impeccable job as a travelogue picture: you really feel like you are there with Nancy and it sure feels like Lively is doing a lion’s share of her own surfing. 

Serra’s direction is both the best and worst traits of this film, though, as he has this annoying knack for over-directing key sequences with an obtrusive abundance of slow motion trickery, a bombastically distancing music score, and caffeinated editing that distracts from the lean and mean aesthetic that the film should have been trying to command.  That, and THE SHALLOWS contains, as mentioned, a lot of needless filler about Nancy’s struggles with home life and a tacked on subplot involving her mother that adds nothing to the overall intensity of this film (ultimately, we don’t need any of these details to support the woman versus shark nature of the action…that would work fine on its own).  The screenplay gets ridiculously convenient at times, especially the notion that Nancy is a medical student, which provides her character with the know-how to treat her wounds (inexplicably, she’s also well versed in bird anatomy and helps mend the wing of her companion).  There are also too many moments involving her providing inexplicable commentary on what she’s doing or thinking when no other human involved in an identical hair-raising predicament while all alone would muster.  Compared to the relatively silent film approach of the infinitely superior ALL IS LOST (which kept Robert Redford’s words to an absolute and authentic minimum), Nancy in THE SHALLOWS acts, talks, and behaves like a scripted movie character that has to needlessly educate the audience on what's happening on screen and not a real human being trapped in an inescapable set of circumstances. 

Miraculously, Lively is up to the performance challenge of elevating herself well above the mechanical nature of the scripting and delivers a focused, committed, and empowered performance that does command our attention for the film’s 87 minutes.  You totally buy into her paralyzing fear and anxiety.  I just wished, though, that THE SHALLOWS was…more teeth-clenchingly scary.  And yes, the CGI-infused shark effects are mightily impressive, but they’re all for naught when the film builds towards a climatic showdown between it and Nancy that culminates in a borderline ludicrous fashion and all but robs the enterprise of any sense of verisimilitude that it was attempting to conjure up.  That’s a real shame.  THE SHALLOWS is in trouble when its surfing sequences early on are the most purely thrilling visceral moments in its human survival narrative.  I simply didn’t leave my screening of this film feeling agitated or jittery.  THE SHALLOWS has the core ingredients to make for a solid horror thriller, but its overall execution is lackluster and lacks the bite of its main aquatic antagonist.  


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