As with the recently reviewed (and absolutely brilliant) Nerve, The Shallows is a rarity this summer, in that it is a wholly original film in a landscape of remakes, reboots, sequels and superheroes. Emerging in UK cinemas after its June domestic release, it seems that The Shallows is the little thriller that could, already trumping its production budget more than four times over (with many more countries to explore) and winning the critics over too. Dubbed Blake Lively vs. Shark, how does The Shallows stand up against the bigger, badder and louder films of the summer season?
After being dropped by a friend, Nancy (Lively) travels to a secluded beach in Mexico to surf, where she begins to question her future as a medical student so shortly after her own mother's death. At first sight, the beauty of the paradise islands seem inviting, but when she becomes stranded with a killer shark on the prowl, Nancy must overcome the creature and fight for her own survival. Cut off and abandoned out at sea, she must do everything to escape death.
More than any other single factor, the success of The Shallows lies with its star, Blake Lively, who puts in a dedicated and powerful performance as a character fighting against all odds. Whilst more recognisable as a horror-thriller on the surface, beneath it, what lies at the heart of the film is a deeply affecting character drama, performed tremendously by Lively. As with her husband's (Ryan Reynolds) own minimalist film, Buried, that too puts only one main character as the focus, drives a hugely rewarding and fascinating performance, building a character you cannot help but root for. It could so easily crumble in the wrong hands, but instead, Lively absolutely succeeds in giving an engrossing and absorbing turn as a character, physically and metaphorically, out of her depth.
Another win for the film is the way the intensity is built throughout; whether through director Jaume Collet-Serra's snappy and disconcerting direction and editing, underwater point-of-view shots or the pulsating music that scores each scene. Knowing the premise and general outline of the film means adrenaline is pumping moments after they arrive at the beach and rarely relents from that point onwards. In act one, the way the music instantly cuts or changes pace sets a very uneasy tone that puts you on the edge of the seat for the film's lean 86 minute runtime, which prevents the film from ever feeling over bloated or uncomfortably long. One-man (or one-woman) films possess the danger of diluting your attention but Lively's captivating performance, matched with these other factors, avoid this feeling from coming into fruition.
Of the visuals that are real, the film is most certainly a masterpiece - the luscious beach and ocean are really something special and looking stunning on screen, but the CGI lets it down; the shark never looks as real as it should be, or could be, which occasionally breaks the magic and intensity of the film a little. It's never woefully bad but neither is it entirely convincing, settling for an uneasy middle ground that makes it passable if not credible. The final moments of Lively vs Shark pushes the believability a little too far, in my opinion, although I cannot grumble too much at it for at least trying to come up with something a little different.
The Shallows, on the whole, is quite the success and can be celebrated for its originality in a summer season that has otherwise lacked it. It is definitely inspired by other shark-starring films (Jaws, of course, springs to mind) but avoids too many of the cliches and tropes. While contested by a certain feathered friend, Lively puts in a brilliantly powerful performance which is all strengthened by a solid direction and post-production efforts. Yes, I complained about the actual shark, but The Shallows is the type of small-budgeted, star and character driven box office affair that is slowly starting to disappear from cinemas, and this $17 million production is becoming more and more of a rarity and risk for studios who are now continually chasing franchises and tentpoles, meaning I can forgive the fact that not every crease is ironed out. It is a shame that these type of films are becoming less common in the cinema schedule because, as with the aforementioned Nerve, The Shallows is a wonderful summer popcorn flick.
Summary: The Shallows is thrilling, taut and tense summer popcorn flick with a powerful performance from Blake Lively at the very front and centre
Highlight: Blake Lively. And Steven.