The Shallows wears the skin of one of my favorite movies, while feinting toward the substance of another, and if it doesn't reach the heights of either one, well, that's not its problem, because it's still the best treat of the season so far.
Directed by Jaume Colett-Serra
Written by Anthony Jaswinski
With Blake Lively (Nancy) and Sully (Steven Seagull)
Spoiler alert: moderate
Believe it or not, there has not been another movie this summer that I've been more excited about than Jaume Colett-Serra's The Shallows. (And in case you didn't know it was "Jaume Collett-Serra's The Shallows," this movie's neat, op-art ending credits place the two title cards, "directed by Jaume Collett-Serra" and "a Jaume Collett-Serra film," no more than thirty seconds apart. Fortunately, this is the only time I actually laughed out loud during The Shallows, and that's pretty impressive, considering that by its climax, The Shallows frankly straight-up dares you to laugh right in its face.) Anyway, ever since I stumbled into its memorably bizarre trailer, I've been stoked, and I can't even begin to tell you why, even though it's my job to tell you why.
I'm not a Blake Lively fan. I'm definitely not a Collett-Serra fan, given that the only other Collett-Serra joint I've ever seen, Non-Stop, was no better than just okay. In fact, I had even less reason to be excited for this thing than I even thought I did, for Colett-Serra and his financial backers decided that The Shallows—which, in case you don't know, is a movie about a vicious, implausibly-extended shark attack, with a body count of either three people or four, plus one poor half-eaten whale—needed to be rated PG-13. And that is insane. (Just where does the Venn diagram lay, between the audience who digs films about killer animals and the audience who prefers their cinematic violence to be restrained? Because the overlap must be miscroscopic.)
Now, this isn't the absolute end of the world; no less a shark thriller than Jaws was rated PG, after all. But that really was a different time, when you could mercilessly slaughter a child on camera and (if you were Steven Spielberg) the MPAA would do nothing more than meekly suggest parental guidance. Well, there's mighty good news on that front: I went in assuming The Shallows was rated R, and I had no idea that it wasn't until Blake Lively expended this PG-13 film's single "fuck," in a line which—in a movie that's been virtually devoid of swearing until this very moment—seems just out-of-character enough for her long-suffering heroine, Nancy, that you're almost compelled to interpret it as the beginning of a genuine nervous breakdown. And that's appropriate enough, given that the film itself is just about to start going through its own, warping itself into full-fledged psychosis in order to provide the ending that its writer, Z-list horror jobber Anthony Jaswinski, needed it to have.
But you know what has a totally believable ending? Jaws.
So, if you put a gun to my head and demanded that I give you a reason why I was excited about The Shallows, I guess the best I could do is this: every other film I'm still enthusiastic about in 2016 could still go wrong. And, as for movies that have already come out this year, they did go wrong—sometimes horribly wrong—just about as often as they went right.
The Shallows, meanwhile, could only have been fucked up by supreme incompetence, and my faith in its perfect premise was disappointed solely to the extent that I can't quite award it a full-on 10/10. Instead, it's merely a pretty damned great movie, undermined by just enough flaws to scuttle the perfect score I initially presumed it would get, and which I was practically sure it would get once its plot really gets going, and Collett-Serra deploys his film's single best shot (likely the best shot in any film this year)—when he replaces the deep, dark blue of his underwater realm with a screen-swallowing curtain of red liquid that, previously, had been inside our heroine. It's simple; it's totally effective; and it sums up The Shallows more-or-less entirely.
So about that plot: it practically doesn't have one. But what plot there is concerns Nancy, a medical student in the midst of a crisis, and considering quitting, thanks to the recent loss of her mother to an undefined disease that no doctor could cure. To exorcise her demons, she's ventured to a little-known stretch of beach in Mexico, where she plans to surf until her heart feels better, or something like that. Well, surf she does, but when everyone else has left, she goes out to catch one last wave—and, as I believe I've already mentioned, this movie's about a shark.
And that's the show: Nancy's leg is savaged, and she is stranded upon a outcropping of rock that only stays above the waterline at low tide. Everything else is Nancy battling to survive, while the Earth turns, our clock ticks, and the tide comes in again, leaving her completely defenseless against the ocean's most dangerous predator. There are the expected scenes, and a few unexpected scenes, and they fill up the remaining seventy minutes with an endlessly thrilling tale of a human struggling against a natural world that hates her guts. What characterization there is arrives on the margins, and mostly through the little talks Nancy has with herself, with a camera that she finds (it was once attached to another surfer's head), and with her injured seagull friend. And, yes, The Shallows has an "injured seagull friend"—it's the film's best gesture toward sentiment (and its only gesture toward comedy), and he works on a level that is hard to describe without simply rolling the relevant footage. But Sully is one amazing animal actor, and he's a wondrously cute animal companion, who somehow never gets in the way of all of Collett-Serra's brutal survival thrills. It must be the last thing you'd ever expect here, which perhaps makes it even more enjoyable than it ought to be.
Still: when the film makes the seagull into an invincible metaphor instead, it goes that one crucial inch too far—especially when the bird's final moments with Nancy are told in such a way that you become completely certain that he was a metaphor for something else, something much, much nastier. But when nothing happens, you suspect that Collet-Serra and Jaswinski simply lost their nerve, unwilling to push their existential thriller into a crueler dimension which, at last, might have helped it really stand apart from its most obvious forebear. Now, clearly, I mean the one movie The Shallows is patterned upon in every possible respect, from its first scene to its last—or, more accurately, its next to last, since The Shallows has the most damnably unnecessary epilogue I've seen in a movie since Return of the King faded back in from black for the twenty-third time.
Indeed, it seems impossible that anybody could rip off the movie that this movie rips off, yet somehow entirely fail to rip off the single easiest thing about that movie to rip off, namely the blunt perfection of its very final frame.
And I really, really hope you don't think I'm talking about Jaws again, because while The Shallows might be as good a riff on Spielberg's shark tale as we'll ever get, the narrative and thematic relationship it actually bears to Jaws, that great study of American masculinity and smalltown communities under pressure, is no deeper than "both feature an inordinately-murderous fish." No, I'm talking about Gravity, from which The Shallows cribs shamelessly: the lone female protagonist; the loss that makes her existence seem pointless; the journey into a dementedly-inhospitable environment; the inevitable disaster; and, finally, the moral of the story, that where there's life, there's still hope. (So, as a fun game, go round up the reviews that mention Spielberg's film but not Cuaron's, and wonder how anyone missed this.)
Now, it goes completely without saying that The Shallows is naught but a pale echo of its inspiration (for one thing, a dead parent is a desperately inadequate substitute for a dead child). But, frankly, this comparison doesn't even feel fair, because The Shallows never stood a chance: the formal possibilities offered by Gravity's cosmic canvas weren't exactly going to replicated in a low-budget, single-location movie, which, for the most part, is confined even further, to just one tiny rock.
Honestly, Collett-Sera might've had the harder job, but he acquits himself with honor—at least, once he gets to the actual shark. But this does mean that before the shark, I was forced to imagine what a director with more soul might have done with The Shallows' preliminary material, which is shot as a combination of a tourism ad, a hacky sports video (with questionable musical supervision), and, of course, a whole heap of aggressively-foregounded Male Gaze—although it is an open question whether there is any other way (let alone a better one) to film a movie where Blake Lively spends the first act splashing around fecklessly in a bikini. Meanwhile, let's give credit where it's due: for good or ill, Collett-Sera is obsessed with expanding our cinematic vocabulary for representing modern communications, and if Non-Stop was one small step for smartphones, then Shallows is one giant leap for smartphonekind—and right into a giddy world of giant Skype calls superimposed upon the frame, like the cyclopean holograms of some Galactic Emperor.
Then, in a flash, the tone turns. Flavio Martinez Labiano's cinematography retreats from its glossy reverie, Marco Beltrami's first good score in years opens up, and the horror-thriller we came to see begins. It could scarcely be better: Collett-Sera manages the feat of making his movie tremendously visual, even though the action hardly ever goes anywhere at all, and when it does, it's less than a hundred yards. Rather, the director understands that the pressure-cooker of his scenario, represented by the tiny plot of ocean real estate claimed by our heroine, is the heart of its great effectiveness, but he never lets his imagery get dull. He's especially fond of obliterating God's-eye-view shots, underlining Nancy's tininess in the face of her blue inferno; yet some of the best moments involve Nancy's limited perspective—one particular gag with some obscuring waves, and two fellow surfers, is timed to perfection.
So make no mistake, there is action here, and this movie smashes poor Lively to bits, like Sam Raimi were in charge. From the grotesquerie of Nancy's self-surgery (neatly dovetailing with her medical training, but no less affecting for her half-successful attempt to psychologically distance herself from the terror of it) to the fate of a less-than-helpful local, I'm not sure a PG-13 has ever been pushed this far. No, Collett-Serra depicts all the blood, puke, and tears issuing from his heroine's body with the kind of gross enthusiasm that you'd expect from any self-respecting horror flick.
It's a pity, then, when Collett-Serra's storytelling chops waver. The film begins, completely unnecessarily, with a scene from its climax. As for that awesome death, in order to show it, the film breaks from Nancy's perspective in a palpably ungainly way; oh, it's a worthwhile trade, but you can just feel those grinding gears. And, you know, for a movie this willing to repeatedly punch you in the face with the elementary-school concept of "the tide"—it has a Goddamned onscreen countdown—it can sometimes be almost offensively obscure, like when it comes to explaining the barely-plausible mechanics of a dead whale leaking enough oil into the water for Nancy to set it on fire.
As for Lively herself—well, the center holds. Tasked with only a few big emotive displays, she admirably underplays all of them—that "fuck" is nothing compared to her read of "nuh-uh," which, quite impossibly, she elevates into one of the year's better lines. But Lively's greatest accomplishment is to simply exist as a physically credible object: after all, Nancy's believability as a vehicle for torment is the most important single element The Shallows puts at play.
Yes, one wishes that $17 million could buy some better CGI—when we get a good look at Collett-Serra's beast, it recalls Spielberg's transparently-robotic shark, only without either the charm or the dead-eyed menace. (And, really, Jaume: you couldn't afford practical flares?) But that's nitpicking, and it's the last bad thing I'll say about it. Instead, let me close with this: dedicated to the prospect of playing out its premise in the most entertaining, blood-curdling way its makers knew how, if a better movie than The Shallows actually does come along this summer, then that'll be the real surprise.