Thursday, July 7, 2016

"The Shallows" Review: Successfully Lures The Audience Into Tense Waters But Cuts Us Loose Too Soon


Movies like The Shallows can't be held up to the standards we use to evaluate the more sophisticated summer blockbusters as it was made on a shoestring budget, doesn't carry any real star power with it and isn't aiming to be anything more than the B movie schlock fest that it so clearly is. But that doesn't mean it gets a free pass as plenty of other films with similar constraints such as The Cabin in the Woods, You're Next and more recently 10 Cloverfield Lane were able to deliver the goods in spite of what they were. So does The Shallows exceed, meet or is otherwise inferior to the standards of the genre by which it is a part of? Read the full review after the break.

Review Vital Stats:   
Projector Type: 2D Digital    
Film Rating: PG-13
Film Runtime:  1 hr 27 min
Studio: Lionsgate
Release Date: June 24, 2016

Biases:  
Loves: Movies where a single actor must carry the film, Jaws
Likes: Surfing (watching it that is), the isolated tropical setting
Neutral: Blake Lively (although she earned my respect here)
Hates: Late third act tonal shifts that contradict everything that came before it
What is the best comparison to be made here?: First two thirds is like Jaws and the last third is like Deep Blue Sea.

Nancy is a skilled surfer despite her Texas origins.

Nancy (Blake Lively) has just recently lost her mother to a long and hard battle with cancer. Feeling defeated and with her surfboard in hand, the Texan native decides to take a break from her medical school training and head down to her mother's favorite beach in Mexico in an attempt to connect with her now deceased mother. Hidden away from tourists and isolated from the rest of the world, the beach is everything she could have dreamed. While surfing the crystal clear waters and hanging out with a couple of fellow surfer locals Nancy stumbles upon a whale carcass that has washed into the shallows. Little does she know that something has come with it and before she can do anything about it she finds herself in a battle to survive one of the ocean's oldest predators.

Some of my favorite films are ones where a single person is trapped, alone and must use their wits and whatever survival skills they have to emerge victorious against whatever force is working against them, be it man or nature. A couple of shining examples of this genre are films such as 127 Hours, Buried and Cast Away, all of which feature a person fighting against the odds to survive. The one thing that sets those films apart from say something like The Martian is that there is a sense of reality to their settings and situation. We can imagine ourselves in that situation and then evaluate based on our own knowledge and/or skill sets how we might do things differently, be it right or wrong decisions.

The often gorgeous cinematography is without question a highlight of the film.

The Shallows, while firmly rooted in that genre finds itself in a tricky predicament as its premise is both goofy escapism and can also actually happen if all the right (or wrong depending on your point of view) elements come together. This leaves much of the decision making up to its director who must work out how far to take things in one direction or the other which can have a huge impact on the overall tone. Here in lies the inherent problem with director Jaume Collet-Serra's vision for his shark attack film, it establishes itself early on as this grounded and quasi-realistic tale of a woman stuck just a couple hundred yards from shore who must outwit her sharp-toothed adversary but eventually loses all grip on reality and delves into cheap schlock entertainment for the finale with a baffling shift in tone.

For the first two thirds of The Shallows Collet-Serra sets the stage for what at first appears to be a story about raw survival. Most of the exposition is handled early on setting things up like the fact that Nancy is alone, she has med school training and has lost her will to fight to survive thanks to the defeat her mother succumbed to when recently passing away. While it isn't exactly given to us in the most subtle ways possible, Collet-Serra at least had the right idea to not linger on any of it and get us in the water as quickly as possible. That being said though, the actual shark attack takes a while to happen with most of the first half of the film taken up with some admittedly beautiful underwater photography of Nancy's surfing sessions that at times almost feels like a music video.

Somehow the film keeps this scenario feeling intense up until...

That sort restraint is rare in this day and age of filmmakers rushing to get to the payoff and is one of the strongest aspects to The Shallows. It begs comparison to Spielberg's classic Jaws in the sense that even when we do finally see the shark we still don't actually SEE the shark for a good majority of the screen time. This helps build the tension in a very subtle way where just like Nancy we know there is something lurking just below the surface that is waiting to gobble her up but we almost never see it. Added wrinkles such as a couple instances of possible saviors helps keep the endeavor from becoming too monotonous as well as a fairly brisk runtime coming in just under the ninety minute mark. But while the film does earn a lot of good will early on by keeping things low key with only a few bursts of adrenaline to keep us engaged, like a rubberband stretched for too long the film just snaps and everything falls apart during the final act.

Perhaps it was in the script all along or perhaps it is the victim of studio meddling (see 10 Cloverfield Lane as a recent shining example of this) but whatever the case may be the film ultimately becomes just another monster movie by the end with both the shark and Nancy performing feats that defy all logic. Nancy, who had been gimped for the majority of the film all of a sudden can move swiftly enough to out maneuver her more aquatically inclined foe and the shark suddenly can leap into the air and rip steel apart with its teeth (where was the mobility when Nancy was on the must smaller rock?). The ridiculousness is only compounded by a number of deus ex machina moments where the writers clearly just gave up and/or got tired of trying to make sense of anything happening. The best example of this is when there is a sudden oil spill (do buoys have oil?) in the area where Nancy, complete with the obligatory action hero line of , "F*** you" shoots a flare to set the sea ablaze. Really, that happens.

...it decides to make Nancy an action hero.

Oddly enough the one area the film seemed poised to stumble the most in was in its choice of Blake Lively as the lead. This doesn't have to do with any sort of dislike or disdain for the actor but more a question as to her acting abilities which haven't really been put to the test like this before (nightmares of Green Lantern suddenly come flooding back....shudder). She has the difficult task of carrying the majority of the film on her shoulders with only a handful of shark fodder and an injured seagull (amusingly named Steven Seagall) to share the screen with and she wins out with a strong but vulnerable performance where the audience never feels any animosity towards her even when she does some questionable things from time to time (why did she need that camera again?). Surprisingly Lively is more of a highlight here than a detriment.

The disappointment with The Shallows doesn't lie with how it isn't trying to be more than the B movie entertainment it clearly wants to be, the disappointment comes from how it didn't have enough courage to believe an audience would be along for the ride without a bombastic finale. Nancy was set up as a clever person who thought on her feet and had the smarts to outwit the shark (as evidenced by a tense scene with her tracking the sharks movements), but all of that set up is kicked to the curb in favor of making her into some sort of action hero which undermines the films tone that was expertly established in its first two thirds. None of this make the film horrible by any means but its difficult to come away from it not imagining a much better ending than the one we got.


FINAL THOUGHTS:

Much like Jaume Collet-Serra's previous film the Liam Neeson action flick Non-Stop, The Shallows is good for most of its brief runtime but just comes apart at the seams by the end. Blake Lively makes for a solid heroine to follow and does her job by earning the audiences sympathy but sadly the script and the action movie tropes jammed in at the last second undermine what could have been a modern day equivalent to Jaws.

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