The Shallows (2016)

Not just another day at the beach

Ever since Steven Spielberg’s shark shocker Jaws frightened audiences out of the water in 1975, the murderous sea monster sub-genre has lacked significant bite, spawning a variety of goofy shark-centric pics — think Dinoshark (2010), Ghost Shark (2013) and the idiotic Jurassic Shark (2012). Now, some forty years on, Spanish filmmaker Jaume Collet-Serra, Orphan (2009), takes a solid stab at reviving the B-movie premise, giving filmgoers a taut nerve-racking survival story that features a vengeful great white to rival the sheer ferocity of Universal’s most iconic man-eating white pointer.

Shot on Lord Howe Island (and in parts of Queensland) Australia, The Shallows is more-or-less a one woman splash, trailing medical student Nancy Adams (Blake Lively), a blonde surfer chick, who travels to a remote spot in Mexico in order to ride the waves at an unnamed, untouched ‘paradise’ — the same body of water her deceased mother surfed after learning she was pregnant with our protagonist. Late that afternoon, after joining a couple of locals on the swell — and following an emotional videochat with her younger sister Chloe (Sedona Legge) — Nancy decides to go back into the spray one last time. However, Nancy, spotting the rotting carcass of a floating humpback whale, soon learns that she is not alone in the watery shallows as a malicious underwater predator takes a large chomp at (and severely punctures) her left leg, smashing up her surfboard in the process. Injured, marooned and stranded on a secluded and partly submerged reef, only a few miles away from shore, Nancy’s short swim back to safety turns into the ultimate contest of wills, with two instinctive creatures — a young woman and a carnivorous shark (that’s apparently female) — who both have good reason to be on the beach, fighting for a cause: one to stay alive and the other for vengeance.

A Killer View
A Killer View

Let me first start by stating that The Shallows is pretty darn Jawsome for a film with a watered down rating (PG-13 in the States and M here locally), with shocking bursts of gore and genuine moments of blood-curdling terror spritzed throughout, director Collet-Serra never holding back on feeding us those jaw-clenching thrills. At a mere 86 minutes, The Shallows plods along with a steely sense of focus whilst effortlessly trumping those chewed-up-and-spat-out shark-attack tropes: this film is surging with surprises and will undoubtedly hook viewers in, then keep them on the edge of their seats right until the final credits begin to roll.

From the get-go, Collet-Serra immediately baits in his audience by seamlessly creating a calm false sense of security (this generated through the film’s serene setting), then instantly turns the tides when things go pear-shaped, revealing the jagged rock formations and ominous dangers camouflaged all around. Written by Anthony Jaswinski, Kristy (2014), the script shrewdly plays up its survivalist premise while the breakneck pacing and hyper-focused visuals keep the ghastly kicks coming at a relentless pace, Collet-Serra proving his worth as a powerful filmmaker with a keen eye: mixing beauty with horror, a scene that sees Nancy wade through a swarm of glowing jellyfish, in order to narrowly outrun the cold-blooded great white, is both haunting and ruthless, and stands as a bona fide highlight. The screenplay also finds time to drop in some subtle yet palpable themes — a back-story that sees Nancy endeavor to overcome a family trauma is tonally sound — strengthening the narrative without coming across as cheesy or obtrusive.

' ... not shore if I can make it out alive'
‘ … not shore if I can make it out alive’

With a hungry, 7 meter-long CGI-shark circling the isolated Nancy — who’s got no real resources at her disposal — our heroine (the odds stacked clearly against her) is forced to fend for herself, relying on her own ingenuity, inventiveness and wits to make it back to the shoreline in one piece — with all of her limbs still in tact. Thankfully 28-year-old Blake Lively, The Age of Adaline (2015), proves to be up for the challenge, Lively completely transcending the limits of her compact settings (a reefy boulder and a buoy) whilst showcasing a fortitude of emotions in a career-high performance that’s both physical and psychological, keeping plausibility afloat in this wildly far-fetched scenario. And of course, who can forget the ‘breakout star’ of the film, Nancy’s wounded winged companion: a poignant ring-billed gull nicknamed Steven — after the legendary martial arts movie star Steven Seagal. With his timely ‘nips and pecks’ and ‘will-he-or-won’t-he’ survive tenor, this feathered squawker (who happens to be an actual, non-digital bird called Sully) somewhat steals the limelight from his human co-star, basically working as the Wilson to Lively’s Chuck Noland — you know, Tom Hanks’ character from Castaway (2000). Throughout proceedings, Steven Seagull maintains Nancy’s waning sanity and ebbing morale whilst being a key component in aiding the conflicted student re-think her stony resolve, Nancy dead-set on leaving the medical profession altogether — this gull’s a real trooper!

With remarkable seaboard and underwater sights — vividly photographed by cinematographer Flavio Martínez Labiano, Non-Stop (2014) — it’s no surprise that the sounds of the sun, surf, sand and screams are equally as heady. From the wave-riding montage insistently set to electronic dance music — the tune cutting out when the camera submerges beneath the crushing breakers, then re-starting again as it re-surfaces — to Sia’s evocative ‘Bird Set Free’ that ripples over the flick’s moody, excellently designed bumper credits, The Shallows is aesthetically top shelf stuff. And let’s not forget the riveting soundtrack by Marco Beltrami, Scream (1996), which navigates through the treacherous waters with unyielding poise, then gets the blood pumping when it’s all-out man (well, woman) versus beast.

There's Something in the Water
There’s Something in the Water

A love letter to all things ‘shark,’ Jaume Collet-Serra’s The Shallows is an unforgiving, no-barriers escapist entertainer that’s sure to be lapped up by those millennials, who — believe it or not — may have never before actually seen a Jaws picture — as startling as this may seem. Reveling in old-fashioned B-movie gusto, The Shallows is certainly not your average oceanfront getaway, far from it I’d say. Boasting first-rate visuals, a commanding performance, stellar sound-design and a vindictively snide death-dealing shark, this self-assured minimalist romp proves that (often) less can really be more. Either way, this spine-tingling tension-builder hasn’t inspired me to get back into the water any time soon, given that the Peter Benchley inspired ‘Jaws’ has been off our screens for just under 30-years, the sea devil last spotted in Jaws: The Revenge all the way back in 1987.

Ultimately, as the curtain sets over the sun-drenched coast, this sharp-toothed killer chiller (while no Oscar contender) sure lingers, emerging as an honest-to-goodness dash of fresh water in a year swimming with salty, sub-par blockbusters, carving its way as one of the year’s more meatier servings. Now, cue the Jaws theme!

4.5 / 5 – Highly Recommended

Reviewed by S-Littner

The Shallows is released through Sony Pictures Australia