Going into The Shallows, I had dueling expectations. I either wanted this movie to be as gloriously dumb as the seemingly SYFY original premise of “Blake Lively versus Great White” promises. Or I wanted it to be as smart and titillating as such “beware vacation” thrillers as A Perfect Getaway (with creepy yet swoon-inducing Timothy Olyphant) or Donkey Punch (which is way more fun than that gross title suggests.) Honestly, I wasn’t sure which to root for.
On the one hand, you have a popular yet polarizing celeb thrown into a torture-porn scenario: While surfing on a secret beach, Nancy (Lively) is attacked by a shark. Too far out to make it to shore safely, she pulls herself onto a large rock, and then must concoct a plan before high tide sinks her sanctuary. Considering The Shallows was helmed by the same director who brought us Paris Hilton as a murder victim in House of Wax, I suspect Jaume Collet-Serra knew some fans would be rooting for the shark. Would he roll hard into the schadenfreude-driven spectacle that helped kick off his career?
On the other hand, Collet-Serra could carve out a narrative that like Prefect Getaway would subvert the tawdry concept by lacing in real shocks, breath-taking violence, and a sharp (and very dark) sense of humor. After all, that trailer where the teased shark attack cuts to Lively’s mouth chomping into a crisp apple showed a grim wit. Regrettably The Shallows falls somewhere in between. It’s not smart enough to be smart, nor dumb enough to be dumb. And what are we to do with that?
To the film’s credit, it strives to put you on Nancy’s side. She’s not some dopey bimbo who deserves her fate for solo-touristing in a dangerous cove (the nature equivalent of running away from the slasher by heading up the stairs instead of out the front door). She made the trip to Mexico with a friend, who bailed on the beach day at the last minute. She gets a ride to the beach from a charming local (Oscar Jaenada, who is so casually sultry he should be in more things immediately, please and thank you.) The beach has cell reception and friendly fellow surfers! Who could blame her for feeling comfortable enough to try to grab that one last wave before the sun sets? Especially when you consider how this trip is really an attempt to connect to her late mother, who surfed here decades ago when she was pregnant with Nancy.
To Lively’s credit, she really gives her all in this performance. Before the shark attack, she’s blithe, charming, and beautiful. And Collet-Serra wastes no chance to get close-ups of her enviable beach bod. Slow-motion shots showcase Lively surging up through the surf like a blond, busty goddess. And when things turn tragic, Lively screams her heart out, throws herself full-bodied into each anxiety-inducing brush with this relentless sea beast, and even sells the horror of off-screen carnage with her quivering lip and tear-cloaked eyes. It’s not a camp performance at all. You feel the threat and Nancy’s fear with each salt-water splashed frame.
I admired how seriously The Shallows took Nancy’s desperate situation, until it didn’t. The film wavers between the realistic and the ridiculous in a way that never quite lets the audience get its bearings. In one particularly harrowing scene, Nancy sutures her chomped-on thigh with the help of gritted-teeth determination, MacGyver ingenuity, and a pair of flashy earrings. In the next, she’s chatting with her wounded sea bird sidekick, Steven Seagull.
Don’t get me wrong. I loved all the bird bits. They are clearly intended to give her a confidante to work out her plans aloud in a less clichéd way. But that seagull has got it. As her Wilson (or Manny), he’s the connection she needs to carry on. What I thought was going to be a momentary piece of animal levity proved to be a big part of the film, as Steven becomes almost as big a part of the movie as Lively’s ass, which Collet-Serra shoots from every possible angle.
But the silliness introduced with Steven Seagull increases as The Shallows rolls on, mounting into a finale that is explosive, exciting and mind-numbingly preposterous. After laying so much groundwork to place the film in a natural setting with realistic expectations, the script piles on unreal elements, rejecting actual shark behavior and upgrading Nancy from scrappy surfer/medical student to marine warrior/survival genius. It’s jarring enough that the third act feels like it’s from a different movie altogether. As much as I attempted to get on board and enjoy the film on its own terms, I couldn’t figure out sequence to sequence exactly what those terms were.
This is an almost good movie. The shark attack stuff (done with the help of a CG creation) is deliciously scary. The seagull stuff is a delight. The suspense throughout the second act is wonderful. The film itself is gorgeous, painted in vivid colors, shot in part on an actual untouched beach, and peppered with slo-mo shots that allow audiences to be awed by the glory of nature. Lively proves a stalwart lead, shouldering nearly every frame, and pushing herself physically and emotionally to a bruised breaking point. And yet I walked away underwhelmed.
Navigating halfway between blatantly bonkers and bitingly brilliant, The Shallows sadly got stranded in beautiful but bush-league.