Nancy Adams (Blake Lively), a recent medical school drop-out, takes a trip to an idyllic beach that her late mother visited while pregnant with Nancy, in order to relax, surf, and find herself. Towards the end of the day, after the two beach bums she meets out on the water have turned to shore for the night, Nancy is attacked by a shark, being forced to take refuge at a small island created by the low tide, her only companion being an injured seagull. The resulting survival thriller/horror film should have been a clichéd, simplistic Hollywood bore, a dumb “Jaws meets Gravity” knock-off. And yet it’s exciting, tense and cathartic. But not without its flaws.
For one, the film likely would have benefited from even less “story” in its already trim, 86-minute narrative; more precisely, less backstory and exposition. It feels like the filmmakers – or more likely the producers or studio – felt that the audience wouldn’t go for a simple story of a woman fighting off a shark attack. Cut some of the narrative fat at the beginning and end of the film (there’s an epilogue that’s particularly gratuitous and awkward) and the movie likely improves. That’s not to say that Nancy’s backstory is unnecessary or unimportant. It actually gives her situation and growth some added resonance, but its execution is a tad clumsy and dull, and feels downright heavy handed at times.
But what holds the film back most of all is that the filmmakers seem to feel the need (or perhaps even the desire) to stay firmly within the confines of what is acceptably mainstream, to make it look and feel like your run of the mill, meat and potatoes Hollywood thriller. Commercial mandates are the film’s downfall. Hence the plot problems listed above, several shots of the camera down right caressing Lively’s bikini clad body, and sequences, surfing sequences in particular, that look like advertisements (I half expected an announcement for Blake Lively’s new line of swim and surf paraphernalia at the end of these scenes).
But there’s a flip side to each of these flaws. As stated above, the exposition and backstory, despite their contrivances and issues, do give Nancy some much needed depth without sacrificing her everywoman persona (“everywoman” may be a bit of a stretch. Lively’s looks and natural charisma are a likely intimidating and hard to identify with). And while there are a few too many shots of Lively’s back (and front) side, there’s an interesting exchange toward the beginning that complicates an easy “objectifying male gaze” reading of these images.
After arriving at the beach, Nancy points out to Carlos (Oscar Jaenada), the man who gave her a ride there, that the small islands just off shore vaguely form the shape of a pregnant woman lying on her back. The film seems to be suggesting that the female form has a grand, natural beauty, that femininity is graceful, life giving and worthy of respect. Suddenly, those shots of Lively in her flattering orange bikini feel less lustful and more reverential, as if there is respect for her body mingled within the desire for it. This doesn’t mean the shots aren’t completely devoid of uncomfortably sexualized context, but it’s infinitely preferable to say, the way Michael Bay shoots Megan Fox in the Transformers films, a gaze that’s about as respectful as a horny, misogynistic 12-year-old boy. This angle becomes more apparent when the film is considered as a feminist response to Jaws, a film that is gratingly, callously macho, despite its thrills and formal elegance. The male protagonists in Jaws kill the shark by (what else?) blowing it up. Nancy merely wants to escape her horrifying situation and deals with the shark through ingenuity and empathy, thinking like the shark, predicting its next move, and turning its aggressive, predatory nature against it. I can’t think of a better answer to the stupid, aggressively masculine idea of going out to sea and looking for a shark to kill it. Plus, I can’t imagine any man in Jaws taking the time to help fix the wing of an injured seagull. The Shallows is ultimately a very feminine, empathetic thriller.
The aforementioned advertising aesthetic is also surprisingly effective when removed from the context of an actual advertisement. How often do ads use sleek, dynamic shots of beautiful young people having a good time to sell us something? But when no product or company logo appears at the end of these sequences, an unusual thing happens: we get to enjoy it, to bask in the elation of this good time we’ve vicariously had with these gorgeous people, without feeling tricked. Director Jaume Collet-Serra (Non-Stop, Run All Night) is still trying to sell us something, but it’s less a specific product or lifestyle and more a mindset, a sort-of “carpe diem” for the millennial generation, and a respect and appreciation for the natural beauty of the world (The end credits, I swear to God, reminded me of sequences in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life), conveyed through the ineffable power of cinema.
And Collet-Serra shows an impressive if still somewhat shallow (sorry, I’ll show myself out) sense of style. He builds and expands upon the suspense techniques Spielberg deployed in Jaws and his sound design is particularly impressive. To add another feather to his cap, he’s probably the first director I’ve seen who knows how to use Blake Lively effectively. He makes the smart decision to let her be more of a silent movie actress and lets her do and act, rather than just having her be a pretty face to deliver dialogue (thus, my dislike for the script’s more exposition-heavy passages). Lively’s physicality and star power carry the film and provides a solid template for how she and her directors can put her charisma to use in future films.
Yes, there are elements that are so boringly Hollywood and materialistic about The Shallows, but those elements partially work. All I know is that by the end of this film, my nerves were shot and I was emotionally drained. I had just been taken on a ride and loved most of it. If only Hollywood made more films like this. It doesn’t have to be art, but if you want to entertain people, this is how you entertain.