By Ben Bussey
Isn’t it well past time that sharks became truly scary again? Beyond the original Jaws, it’s debatable any film has ever presented those formidable sea dwellers as true objects of terror, and in recent years it’s pretty much a given that any film which features the creatures in the title is going to be an utterly stupid, cut-price, SyFy Channel pantomime: Sharknado, Sharktopus, Mega Shark Vs Giant Octopus… and so it goes. It’s hugely encouraging then, to see a major Hollywood studio prepared to put some real weight (not to mention budget) behind a comparatively grounded tale of a lone surfer who inadvertently winds up caught in the middle of a great white’s feeding ground, and must fend off injury, exhaustion and overwhelming odds to stay alive. Whether the film in question winds up any more accurate a portrayal of real shark behaviour than any of the aforementioned direct-to-DVD schlockbusters is another story, but to a certain extent that’s hardly the point. You’ve got innumerable National Geographic documentaries out there if you want to see the truth about sharks; but if you want a gripping, tense survivalist thriller with a liberal dash of monster movie stirred in, The Shallows may be just what you’re after.
In many respects, The Shallows feels like a throwback to the intimate trapped-in-one-place shockers which sprang up a few years back – 127 Hours, Buried, Adam Green’s Frozen – but in concept and execution, I’m most reminded of the underrated Burning Bright (Brianna Evigan trapped in a house with a ravenous tiger? Forget about it).
Blake Lively takes the lead as Nancy, a Texan surfer and medical student who we’re told has recently dropped out of school, and gone on something of a personal pilgrimage to a secret beach somewhere in Mexico; so secret, she doesn’t even know the name of the place. However, it’s a place Nancy feels a deep connection to, as her recently deceased mother, also a surfer, rode the waves there whilst pregnant with her. Clearly Nancy’s got a bit of that classic surfer free spirit thing going on (or at least, that’s how surfers always are in the movies, I don’t know any in real life), but she also doesn’t seem that good at planning ahead; having got a ride through expansive woodland to a beach she doesn’t know the name of, she’s made zero arrangements to get back later, and misses her one chance at a ride when the two other surfers she meets there head off home while she’s still on the waves. And of course, it’s only once those guys are as good as gone that the shit hits the fan, as Nancy finds the ravaged carcass of a humpback whale floating nearby – the meal ticket of the dreaded Carcharodon Carcharias. But it would seem the whale meat hasn’t satisfied this big boy, as he proceeds to go straight after Nancy, who soon has a nasty bite in her leg, and only three possible places of refuge: the whale carcass, a patch of reef, and a rusty old buoy. And so the stand-off begins.
Originally entitled In The Deep – not the most appropriate title given it takes place 200 yards off shore* – Anthony Jaswinski’s script was named on the 2014 Black List, an annual Hollywood poll of the best un-produced screenplays on the market. It’s not hard to see how this was deemed a no-brainer with the studios: it provides a juicy role for an up-and-coming young actress, completely justifies keeping her in a bikini for more or less the duration, and combines an exotic sun-drenched setting with the mother of all nature’s terrors. However, while it works as a high-concept spectacle, it also manages to be a surprisingly intimate and understated affair, keeping things character-based without drowning (no pun intended) in gratuitous flashbacks and exposition. All this being the case, in some ways it is a surprise they cast Blake Lively – an actress who, despite having been in the business for some time, remains comparatively anonymous in the popular consciousness (she’s best known for being married to Ryan Reynolds, or to some of us for being the niece of Night of the Creeps star Jason Lively). Happily, this may be one of those roles they like to call ‘star-making.’ Lively’s relative anonymity works in her favour, and she proves more than up to the challenge of holding our attention with minimal dialogue. And yes, of course, it doesn’t hurt that she fills her skimpy bikini very well.
As for the other key attraction; director Jaume Collet-Serra adheres to the wisdom of Spielberg and keeps the shark mostly unseen, building tension through editing, suggestive camerawork and brief glimpses of the formidable antagonist. When we do see the big bad, it’s naturally all CGI, and that’s one place where The Shallows does slip up a little. While it is a studio production, it wasn’t exactly made on a blockbuster budget (IMDb lists its budget as $17 million), and it’s the FX that make this most evident. Sure, it’s more impressive than the rubbery sharks of the Jaws movies or the video game graphics of all those SyFy productions, but it’s hardly the most convincing CGI ever; this extends beyond the shark to a number of other sea creatures which make an appearance, as well as Lively’s face being digitally transposed onto her surfing double. These moments don’t ruin the film, but they do tend to take you out of the moment somewhat.
That having been said, the obvious CGI isn’t necessarily a problem if we think of The Shallows as a monster movie – and, all verisimilitude aside, that’s ultimately just what it is. I’m no shark expert, but it’s well established that they very rarely attack humans, so for one to so relentlessly stalk one the way this bad boy does – particularly once the inevitably melodramatic final act kicks in – pretty much beggars belief. But again, this isn’t a nature documentary; it’s a bit of crash-bang-wallop entertainment, and very effective at that. It’s truly tense throughout, and boasts more than a couple of old-fashioned jump scares which I’m not ashamed to admit got me. Obviously it’s not about to dethrone Jaws, but as a movie custom designed to make you afraid to go back in the water, The Shallows gets the job done better than many mainstream efforts in recent memory.
The Shallows is in cinemas now, from Sony.
*Just to further confuse matters, the upcoming Johannes Roberts shark movie 47 Meters Down was briefly set to be released as In The Deep.