Director Jaume Collet-Serra made his debut with the much-maligned 2005 remake of House of Wax, which famously starred Paris Hilton at the height of her tabloid punchline heyday. After following that up with the mediocre Orphan, Collet-Serra apparently decided that he would rather ride the coattails of Taken with second-rate knock-offs that just happened to actually star Liam Neeson (specifically Non-Stop, Unknown, and Run All Night).
Then we have writer Anthony Jaswinski, previously responsible for Killing Time and Kristy, both highly obscure little films with few yet glowing reviews. His highest-profile film to date was Vanishing on 7th Street, which only gained a 50 percent Tomatometer, barely made back a tenth of its budget worldwide, and showed on a grand total of six theaters across the nation.
As for Blake Lively, she’s an actress who still hasn’t exactly found her niche as an actress yet. She’s played a wide variety of love interests, and she’s even headlined a couple of gigs (namely “Gossip Girl” and The Age of Adaline), but it seems like she’s always been surrounded by so many other actors to lean on. I don’t see anything in her CV to suggest that she’s the caliber of actor who could anchor a one-woman show.
(Side note: To be fair, I could’ve said the same of her husband, who did far better with Buried than anyone could possibly have guessed.)
Put all of this together, and it’s abundantly clear that the cast and crew of The Shallows were (*ahem*) out of their depth.
Lively plays Nancy Adams, a med student who’s currently taking a sabbatical following the death of her mother. As part of the grieving process, she’s out surfing on a secluded beach where her mother once visited while pregnant with Nancy. The beach always had a special significance to the two of them, so she’s finally going out to visit the place she’s only ever seen in pictures.
Things go downhill from there. And I’m not even talking about the shark attack.
At first, Collet-Serra only had to make surfing look cool. He does this through the use of ridiculous speed-ramping, an obnoxious score, and shots of Lively that would look right at home in the upcoming Baywatch reboot. It should not be this difficult to make surfing look cool, but the filmmakers end up trying way too hard and the results are simply embarrassing to watch.
But then Nancy decides to stay out later than she was advised, without anyone in the open ocean to accompany her, and then she inexplicably goes swimming toward a whale carcass floating nearby. I’m sure she does a few other fatally stupid things before the shark finally comes, but those three red flags were enough for me to lose a lot of sympathy by the time Nancy gets stranded on a tiny little rock out in the middle of the ocean. Oh, and she’s also got a huge gaping shark bite on her leg to deal with, did I mention that part?
As for the shark itself, the film makes it abundantly clear that this is no ordinary shark. It’s clearly shown to have survived at least one attack from a human, and it goes after Nancy with a determination that goes far beyond hunger. This shark is quite clearly more like a demon than an animal. And since it’s clearly stated that there normally aren’t any sharks at this beach, it’s anyone’s guess what the shark is doing there in the first place. Hell, the shark takes so many implausible steps to kill Nancy (tearing the ladder off a nearby buoy is my personal favorite) that this plot could only make sense if we’re open to the idea that this shark is in fact an unearthly monster.
What makes the shark even more cartoonishly evil is that due to its method of hunting, we’re treated to so many jump scares of the shark popping right out of the water to eat someone. I’m sorry, but I just don’t know if there’s any way to show a giant CGI shark leaping right out of nowhere to eat someone who might as well be wearing a bright red shirt, and hope to make it look anything other than hilarious. It certainly doesn’t help that the score is underlined by so many low bass notes that were clearly meant to evoke Jaws without ripping it off outright.
In my opinion, the greatest example comes in the climax. I don’t want to spoil exactly what happens, but suffice to say there’s an incident with a flare gun that should’ve absolutely fried the fish, but this one swims it off without a scratch on him. If it hadn’t before, that’s when this movie REALLY jumps the shark.
(Side note: Sorry, but the joke was sitting right there.)
This is a very stupid movie. But Lively seems to be taking it dead serious. Lively works so hard to sell this character’s emotional baggage and her fight to survive that it’s like she thought she was in The Revenant or some shit. And based on how much of this film is rooted in Nancy’s inner turmoil (particularly over her family), to say nothing of her constant physical struggles in nursing her wounds and staying alive, it really does feel like somebody behind the scenes wanted to make this a serious drama in addition to a survival horror film. And it’s not like the balance can’t work.
The Grey is a prominent example. That film may have been stupid in places, but there was still some powerful stuff in there about mankind’s relationship with nature, the possible existence of God, and so on. We also have 127 Hours, another one-person show about someone who stupidly gets trapped in one place. But that film was based on a true story, which inherently makes it a touch more authentic and inspirational. Plus, there’s never any worry that a rock will break suspension of disbelief or do anything contrived.
Last but not least, both of those movies were made by superbly talented directors who knew how to use their environments and their lead actors. Compare that to Collet-Serra, who throws together close-up shots and Dutch angles and slo-mo and God knows what else without any apparent idea of how to use them.
The Shallows is a movie that seems pitifully, pathetically unaware of just how stupid it is. It’s like the filmmakers genuinely wanted to make a dramatic survival movie, but they didn’t know how to craft a decent scare, stage a decent action scene, or give the main character pathos in a way that comes together into any kind of coherent theme. Yet in spite of that, Blake Lively is going at it like she’s got something to prove. While Nancy’s exploits are highly improbable and largely due to her own stupidity, Lively is working so hard to sell this character’s struggle to stay alive that she keeps the film watchable. It’s not enough to salvage the film entirely — not by a long shot — but it is enough to keep the film watchable.
It’s not bad enough to be enjoyably bad, and it’s nowhere near good enough for a first-run ticket. So let’s call it a film for home video or a second-run showing.