“The Shallows” (2016) Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra. Starring Blake Lively, Óscar Jaenada and Brett Cullen. Smart movie about woman vs. shark. Similar in intensity to “Jaws,” with deeper character development. It’s your basic girl meets shark, shark likes girl, but girl isn’t really into shark, story.
We have a plucky heroine evading a hungry Great White in a fight for survival just 200 yards off the sandy coast of an idyllic Mexican beach. And by Great White, I don’t mean the 80’s rock band.
In the tense survival thriller, “The Shallows”, medical student Nancy Adams (Blake Lively) arrives at a hidden beach in Mexico where her recently deceased mother came to surf in 1991, after she discovered she was pregnant with Nancy. It’s a spiritual journey to walk in her mom’s footsteps, and a journey she intended to share with her close friend Sara.
But after a night of hard partying, Sara is out of commission back at the hotel, so Nancy decides to go it alone. After a kind local drives her through the dense jungle to the sandy shore, Nancy video-chats with her younger sister and father back in Galveston, Texas. She’s at a crossroads career wise, considering dropping out of medical school and figuring out a new path, and this trip is more than just a simple vacation. It’s a tribute to the woman who raised her and also rode these waves 25 years ago.
The setting is gorgeous.
Clear, sparkling water laps rhythmically against a slender crescent-shaped, sun-drenched beach.
Nancy strips to a bikini and waist-up wet suit before paddling out to sea on her surfboard. She meets two friendly local surfers, one of whom is wearing a helmet and GoPro camera that records the tube riding action. After surfing with them for a bit, the boys pack it in and Nancy decides to explore further out.
She discovers the reeking body of a massive dying whale. Seabirds are picking at a bloody wound in the creature’s side. Soon after, she is attacked by a Great White shark that was feeding in the area. After bouncing brutally off of submerged rocks and beds of coral, she is bitten on the left thigh and barely manages to climb to the safety of a nearby rock that was uncovered as the tide went out.
“The Shallows” then becomes a race against time as the return of high tide will drown the tiny rock island, and allow the huge circling shark to get close enough to eat her.
Nancy fights dehydration and infection in her torn leg, which she operates on and ties off with her wetsuit. While administering medical attention to herself, Nancy speaks as if she were comforting a patient.
She also befriends an injured, flightless seagull she crashed into while being attacked, which is now trapped on the rock island as well. He is her Wilson, though much more talkative than the volleyball from “Castaway.” They spend the night marooned on the ocean together.
The next morning a drunk local man and then the two surfer dudes from the day before show up. It doesn’t go their way.
200 yards away on the beach is Nancy’s backpack and smart phone, a link to rescue that seems impossibly distant. 25 yards to her right is a large buoy bobbing on the sea. Seeking the kind of floating shelter that will make the steadily rising tide a moot point, Nancy begins timing the shark with her watch as it circles.
Can she make the swim to the buoy before the ravenous predator closes in?
All successful movies start with a smartly written screenplay, and in the case where the bulk of the film is a single character in an isolated setting, the screenwriters have to take a stripped down situation and make it clever enough so that their heroine has plenty to do in the 90 minute running time.
“The Shallows” is lean and purposeful. There’s nothing extraneous going on, no fat on the meat. I found the film to be deeper and possess more emotional layers than I had predicted it would, while also being a fun popcorn flick for the summer.
If you don’t care whether Nancy lives or dies, the whole thing wouldn’t work, and Blake Lively’s fine performance invites that needed empathy. Every time she gets in the water to retrieve something or flee, it’s nerve shredding.
In a pop culture era when every other blockbuster is apparently obligated to end with the destruction of cities and bombastic villain speeches and world-shaking consequences, here’s a unique film that rejects all that big noise in favor of telling a simple survival tale. Buildings don’t crumble, but the sight of a woman dipping her feet cautiously into the waves ends up being more effectively suspenseful because it’s so very different from its cinematic peers.
“The Shallows” is smaller in scale and more personal than the average summer flick, without being slight and underwhelming.
Filmed off the incredibly beautiful coast of Australia, the greatest irony of the film is that the ocean has never looked more wonderfully inviting in magical aerial and underwater shots, but has never been more deadly.