Out of its depth7/6/2016
There are times when you watch a movie and can identify the exact moment in the creative process when the writer and director officially ran out of ideas. Sometimes the idea that is pitched to a studio is really only half an idea, but if it is a really good half, that will often be enough. In those cases, everyone involved hopes that the other half of a decent movie will kind of fall into place as they are working on it — but that is often just a pipe dream. “The Shallows” is the latest example of such a dream.
Blake Lively plays Nancy, a medical student who is out on an existential, globe-trotting adventure following the death of her mother. Making her way to Mexico, as a way of following her spiritual footsteps, she manages to track down a hidden surf spot that held special significance to her mother. Nancy tells no one where she is going, and she does not even know the name of the island that sits beyond the breakers and serves as the spot’s only landmark, which calls into question how she managed to find the spot in the first place. But no matter — there is surfing to be done.
After spending the day riding the waves with a couple of friendly locals, Nancy heads back out for one last run before the sun sets, alone this time, as her new friends begin to pack up for the day. Laying on her board watching the dying light, she sees a large object floating in the water and swims closer to investigate, only to find that it is the carcass of a whale, and she has unwittingly swam into the feeding ground of a Great White shark. The shark strikes as she attempts to swim back to shore, injuring her leg and forcing her to seek protection by climbing up on a coral shelf that has been exposed during the low tide. There, wounded and bleeding, her surfboard drifting further away, Nancy finds herself trapped, as the shark lazily patrols the area. She has roughly 12 hours until high tide comes in the morning, erasing her small patch of high ground and casting her back into the ocean.
That is roughly the first third of the film and it is, in all honesty, excellent. “The Shallows” does a tremendous job of building suspense and a feeling of foreboding, and establishes its main point of conflict as quickly and tightly as possible. It is also readily apparent that this is as far as the screenwriters got with their thinking.
In the second act, we see a drunken thief get his over-the-top comeuppance, and watch as Nancy establishes a deep relationship with a wounded seagull, then see her suture her own gaping thigh with her earrings — a scene that is played far less graphically than it could have been thanks to the PG-13 rating but manages to successfully turn stomachs nonetheless. But in the third act, you can feel the shift as director Jaume Collet-Serra apparently makes the decision to turn his more-or-less psychological thriller into a straight-up action flick. The scenes get more and more ridiculous and culminate in a final shark/woman confrontation that has the entire audience in my screening burst into a hearty round of incredulous laughter.
There were the makings of a great summer film here. Lively is remarkably good in her role, and there’s a decent amount of tension in the film’s first half. But it all comes apart so quickly that what you are ultimately left with is a feeling of frustration at what could have been. CV