The Shallows (2016) Film Review: Girl vs. Shark

The Shallows (directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, Non Stop) is an effective, well crafted film. It slots neatly into the horror genre, and it sits comfortably with contemporaries like Open Water, Castaway, 127 Hours, Buried, and even Locke. Similar to those films,  The Shallows focuses in on one character, in this instance, Nancy Adams (Blake Lively).

The story follows Nancy after she drops out of medical school and heads down to Mexico in search of a beach that held significance to her recently deceased mother. There, she hits the surf, but is soon attacked by a shark when she strays into its hunting ground. She’s bitten in the leg, forced to take refuge on a rock, stranded a mere twenty feet from the shore. But with the shark circling, and fresh blood in the water, there’s no way for Nancy to swim to safety.

Battling the tide, and with her island refuge rapidly shrinking, The Shallows sets up a ticking clock narrative, consistently amping up the tension. What follows is mostly expected, but the delivery is assured, and Lively’s Adams, a convincing character to root for.

Saturated Colours

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After the shark makes an appearance, The Shallow’s fully embraces the horror genre. Swirling red blood, overly saturated, stands in marked contrast to the idyllic blue of the Mexican water. The smooth roll of the surf, becomes a thrashing broil. Collet-Sera, too, relies heavily on the composition of his film to emphasise Nancy’s fight for her life, replacing the languid opening sequences with frenetic handheld camera work.

There’s some subtext. Like the shark functioning as a metaphor for Nancy’s grief over her mother, but The Shallows works best when it’s simply forcing Nancy to react to new danger. This tension is lessened at times. A wounded sea gull with a dislocated wing provides a gentle moment and some welcome, if brief, respite. But then it’s back to the frenetic race against time as the increasingly irate shark circles.

Show Don’t Tell

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Director Jaume Collet-Serra does well with a limited screenplay, relying on action to tell Nancy’s story. There’s virtually zero exposition, even the stuff with Nancy’s mother is, for the most part, left in the background. Collet-Serra, a competent B movie action director, maintains the tension throughout the film with every shot of the water holding the promise of snapping teeth.

What stood out for me was how resourceful The Shallows is. Like Blake Lively’s character, the film itself has to make good use of limited resources. So every prop and character serves a narrative purpose. From a Go Pro on a surfer’s helmet, to jellyfish and an injured seagull, nothing is wasted. For a screenwriter, this is an admirable feat, although for some viewers it might feel too functional.

From the gratuitous shots of Lively’s bikini clad body, to the B movie-esque premise, The Shallows is everything you could hope for from a summer blockbuster. It’s fun, tense, action-packed, and if you forgive the overly cooked third act, it stands as a pulpy breath of fresh air amidst the sea of disappointing films that surfaced in 2016.

A beautiful heroine and a terrifying villain –  the perfect formula for an excellent cinematic story. And The Shallows definitely delivers on its premise with a cool, breezy, yet tense conflict between a blonde, leggy surfer chick and a big bad shark.

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