The Shallows (2016)
Starring- Blake Lively, Oscar Jaenada, Brett Cullen, Sedone Legge, Sully Seagull
Director- Jaume Collet-Serra
PG-13- bloody images, intense sequences of peril, and brief strong language
Nancy Adams (Blake Lively) is on vacation in Mexico to go surfing at the secluded beach her late mother used to visit. As the sun sets, she decides to catch one last wave — and is set upon by a nasty great white shark. It takes a bite out of her leg, and she only just makes it to the safety of a rock before it takes even more of her. Now, slowly bleeding out and losing time as the rising tide threatens to overtake the rock, she must find a way to survive and make it ashore.
I ought to be the easiest sell in the world for a movie like The Shallows. If you’re making a horror movie about the ocean, you’ve basically got a giant easy button in front of you as far as I’m concerned. Everything about the ocean absolutely horrifies me; even benign Discovery Channel documentaries set me on edge. That is a massive expanse of nothingness with an alien world buried in darkness below you and numerous inhabitants that are bigger, faster, and stronger than you and have lots of teeth. No, thank you. And sharks strike me as nature’s most perfectly terrifying death machines; I find Jaws almost unwatchable.
Short version: The Shallows ought to have reduced me to a puddle of goo in the corner within fifteen minutes, and after it pulled relatively decent reviews, I fully expected it to do exactly that.
Instead, it bored me a little, made me chuckle at inappropriate moments, and largely didn’t scare me all that much. Jaws plays me like a fiddle, but The Shallows, if anything, numbed me to the things I am most afraid of and got me to the point where it didn’t bother me all that much. That’s an achievement in its own right, but not the sort that’s great for a horror movie. I’m afraid I have to sit out on genre fans’ appreciation of this one — not only do I dislike it, I think it’s on the verge of being outright terrible.
Its flaws are plentiful — the herky-jerky direction, the combination of blazing lighting and yellow color correction, the awkwardly framed text message conversations in the beginning, the labored characterization (the first fifteen minutes of the movie is the main character finding ways to shoehorn information about herself into every conversation she has), the labored dialogue (it’s the sort of movie where the characters say everything they see and do out loud in case the audience didn’t get it) — but its chief problem is that it’s really, really dumb, and it’s never quite clear how in-on-the-joke it is.
Sometimes, that’s part of the fun — some of the most entertaining genre flicks out there make it impossible to tell whether you’re supposed to laugh at what you’re seeing. But it’s really difficult to manage that tone — just serious enough to be believable, just goofy enough to make you wonder. It’s hard to say why it works when it does and why it fails when it doesn’t. Ultimately, The Shallows’ ridiculousness very rarely became entertaining for me. Abstractly, a lot of the stuff that happens in this movie sounds really awesome (two words: fire shark), but I just didn’t find it fun in the moment. It’s a little too grim and gritty, I suppose; it buries you in that atmosphere and never lets you leave it long enough to read something as silly, so you only notice it after the fact. Or I did, at least.
The movie did freak me out early on, albeit not for anything it did. That was completely on me. The main character arrives on the beach, gets in the water, and I was anxious for a solid minute solely because I was watching people in the ocean, which is a condition that should not exist under any circumstance. The mere image of someone sitting on a surfboard with legs dangling on either side is enough to send alarms blaring in my head. Basically, I wasn’t accustomed to the premise yet and remained in a state of terror until I finally relaxed a little.
If anything, it slowly gets less scary after the shark is introduced, which seems like it ought to be impossible. As movie monsters go, I just don’t think it’s that good. I mean, okay, I would probably bash my head on the rock until dead before I got into the water with it, but that’s in real life; as a horror movie villain, it’s too contrived. I accept it with the territory of a movie like this that the shark will be unusually intelligent, to a near-human degree, because the real thing isn’t half as oppressive — it’s not going to come upon a group of humans, kill several of them, and then stalk the survivors for the length of a feature film. And the problem with The Shallows isn’t so much that the shark is smart (though the scene where the movie gives it a friggin’ motivation definitely pushed it a little bit toward “too stupid to be scary”) as that it’s selectively smart. Sometimes, the shark knows exactly how to get to the main character; other times, it neglects to do things it could easily do solely because it would end the movie. You feel the narrative machine moving the pieces. It all becomes too predictable — made worse by the trailers, which spoil every single quality scare in this movie. Like I said — contrived.
And that may be why the movie in general didn’t work for me — I could tell where it was going. Every scene just thuds toward its inevitable conclusion. There isn’t a lot here I hadn’t seen before; to some extent, I wonder if Jaws didn’t ruin the shark movie by defining it so thoroughly that every other installment almost has to borrow its techniques. There are a few sequences that would have been effective if the trailers hadn’t spoiled them for me, but the movie comes by most of its scares using the usual tricks of the trade. With a horror movie in particular, you need to feel as though anything can happen; after all, there’s nothing quite as scary as the unknown. The Shallows, on the other hand, stays almost entirely in known territory. Blake Lively bluntly states what she’s going to do and then does it, and maybe the shark gets a near-miss in there somewhere. Every now and then, it borrows a survival horror trope seemingly out of obligation (i.e., main character tries to eat live animals after being stranded for, like, four hours, because that is what the main character does in movies like this). Only the climax is surprising, and even then, only because the main character summons random knowledge out of nowhere and executes confusing plans that are impossible to follow and only make sense after they’ve crashed to a halt and all the potentially fun stuff is over.
It made it tough to care about the characters — well, character; all of the other roles are bit parts at most. Not until near the end did I ever feel like the protagonist was in palpable danger; the shark absolutely will not bother her on the rock even though it clearly could and has already demonstrated the intelligence necessary. And the movie struggles to tie any sense of jeopardy into the fact that she’s bleeding out. Her leg doesn’t bother her except for the scenes where it does, and every now and then, we get a stray shot of her vision getting kind of blurry. Even so, it never affects her when it matters. While she’s stranded on the rock, she sort of adopts an injured seagull also trapped there, and I cared significantly more about that bird than any human character in the movie (they even gave it a credit — its name is Sully Seagull, which is adorable, and I demand a Best Supporting Actor nomination).
There just isn’t much about The Shallows that thrills me. It has a couple of good scenes and manages a few decent scares early on, but for the most part, it was a dud — obvious, predictable, and sometimes a bit too dumb without the humor or joy that would justify it. The Shallows already appears to be generating a small cult following, but it looks like I just can’t be a part of it this time.