Four stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity, bloody peril, brief gore and fleeting profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.24.16
Solo turns are demanding even for accomplished performers, and for the obvious reason: It’s not easy to emote in a vacuum. Actors draw a lot of energy from the dynamic shared with co-stars; remove the rhythm established with such a bond, and the challenge increases exponentially.
Several examples leap to mind: Tom Hanks, in Cast Away; Robert Redford, in All Is Lost; and — for much of the film — Leonardo DiCaprio, in The Revenant. Perhaps not coincidentally, all are survival dramas.
To their company we now add Blake Lively, in The Shallows. And while I wouldn’t presume to equate her acting chops with the three individuals cited above, she nonetheless delivers a credible, persuasive portrayal of a resourceful, level-headed woman who does her best to overcome a horrific situation.
Because, yes, this is another survival drama.
Director Jaume Collet-Serra’s tidy little thriller can be summed up in three words: Woman vs. shark. But scripter Anthony Jaswinski finds increasingly clever ways to expand upon that simple premise, building suspense via the careful establishment of character and detail. Jaswinski, bless him, obviously understands the dramatic principle of Chekhov’s gun: If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off.
The Shallows is constructed very much in the style of a taut three-act play: the deceptively calm introduction; the explosion of danger, and explicit disclosure of overwhelming odds; and, finally, the struggle. Given that structure, Jaswinski deftly inserts trivial and incidental first-act details that later prove important.
I like smart scripts, and this is a smart script.
We meet Nancy Adams (Lively) as a passenger being driven to an isolated beach somewhere along the Mexican coast (actually Lord Howe Island, approximately 600 nautical miles east of Sydney, Australia). As we gradually learn, via brief flashbacks and phone calls, she’s making a cathartic pilgrimage of sorts, to the place where family lore says she was conceived.
Nancy is a skilled surfer; so was her mother, in her day. Nancy’s driver, Carlos (Óscar Jaenada), doesn’t quite believe any of this saga, but he recognizes that the trip is nonetheless important to this perky American. Their skillfully sketched conversation, lasting only a few minutes, tells us everything we need to know about Nancy. Jaswinski’s dialog is economical; the casual, spontaneous bond between Nancy and Carlos is well developed by the two actors. It feels genuine.
Carlos drops her off and drives away; Nancy pauses, admiring the sparkling bay and its crystal-clear blue water (rendered even more lush by cinematographer Flavio Martínez Labiano). She sees two other surfers enjoying the waves — Angelo Josue Corzo and Jose Manuel Trujillo — and soon joins them.
The next segment would be right at home in any classic surfing documentary. The action is sensational, filmed both from above and below the waves; the latter shots, courtesy of underwater director of photography Simon Christidis, are sensational. Collet-Serra and editor Joel Negron are marvelously crafty; Lively clearly is in many (most?) of the shots, and it’s impossible to tell when she’s doubled by a professional surfer. The transitions are seamless.
For Nancy, the session is exhilarating and cathartic. She’s emotionally adrift, attempting to recover from recent loss; she has dropped out of medical school and is unsure of what to do next.
In short order, that decision becomes very simple: She must stay alive.
Thanks to a massive whale carcass floating a few hundred yards offshore, the idyllic surfing spot becomes a hunting ground for a great white shark. Almost faster than she can comprehend, Nancy is badly wounded and stranded on a rocky outcropping, in no way able to out-swim the circling shark that prevents her from reaching the beach that remains so tantalizingly close.
The other two surfers? They’ve driven off; she lingered behind for one last wave. Big mistake.
Worse yet: As she knows from her smart watch, high tide eventually will return ... at which point her precarious rocky perch will be under water.
We’ve already gotten to know Nancy; now we learn to admire her. She’s total Type A: a fighter to the core, even if — to maximize the drama — she occasionally wavers between determination and anguish. (Hey, wouldn’t we all?) But here’s where the sly elements of Jaswinski’s first act come into play: Nancy’s medical school training. The smart watch. And particularly the delicate necklace and unusual earrings that Collet-Serra kept making a point of highlighting. (Chekhov’s gun, right?)
Then, too, Nancy isn’t quite alone on her rock. Tom Hanks had his volleyball, dubbed Wilson, which provided an excuse for his thoughts to be voiced. Nancy has an injured seagull, unable to fly and therefore trapped alongside her. This, too, is a cunning touch ... and not merely because it gives her somebody to talk to.
Nancy’s massive foe, on the other hand, seems invincible. In the great tradition of enraged movie sharks, this is one stubbornly nasty great white. I mean, really: an entire dead whale available, and this shark keeps pursuing our heroine? Where’s the cosmic justice? This point isn’t lost on Nancy, and Lively skillfully adds a layer of irritated frustration — how dare this creature behave in such a way! — to her complex blend of terror, pain and concentration.
It’s a marvelous what-would-we-do? scenario.
Getting back to that great tradition of movie sharks, special effects technology has grown considerably since Steven Spielberg frightened the hell out of us, back in 1975. (That influential movie still keeps people out of the water.) CGI wizards Scott E. Anderson and Diana Ibanez supervised the creation of an amazingly authentic monster; it’s absolutely, amazingly lifelike, and you won’t doubt it for a second.
I suspect the filmmakers also were inspired by the iconic footage of a great white charging up from the depths to chomp on a doomed seal, in the first episode of 2006’s Planet Earth. Collet-Serra and his team come close to replicating that scene here, albeit under somewhat more ghastly circumstances.
Which, in turn, leads to a complaint (albeit regarding a different sequence). For the most part, Collet-Serra delivers PG-13 thrills, suggesting rather than showing, and eschewing gratuitous gore. Until one scene, which is unacceptably, unforgivably gruesome: disgusting, loathsome, horror movie brutality that absolutely does not belong in this film.
It’s also ludicrous in an anatomical context, and a serious lapse in a script that — for the most part — tries to be logical and “fair.”
That miscalculation aside, The Shallows is a thoroughly engaging and satisfying thrill ride. Yes, it’s a B-film, but it’s a damn fine B-film. Collet-Serra clearly knows not to overstay his welcome; at a fast-paced 87 minutes, his film doesn’t waste a frame.
And there’s no question that this modest thriller is far more satisfying, emotionally and vicariously, than the vacuous, earth-shattering nonsense of the overhyped Independence Day: Resurgence, which also opens this weekend.
Spend your money wisely.