My notes on the shark thriller The Shallows. Lurking beneath the surface of this enjoyable hokum is an essay in the sort of man-against-the-sea existential survivalism which usually requires grizzled Spencer Tracy (The Old Man and the Sea) or Robert Redford (All Is Lost) … but here the hero is young med school near-drop-out Nancy (Blake Lively), a hung-up surfer chick in a bikini and wetsuit who gets stuck on a rocky outcrop in sight of a ‘secret beach’ she has visited in tribute to her dead-from-cancer mother while on a search-for-meaning vacation in Mexico (played by Australia). Representing nature at its nastiest is a shark who hangs around the cove to chew bits off a dead whale, incidentally off some locals and engage Nancy in a protracted duel which prompts her to find her inner (and outer) strength.
It parallels other sharksploitation suspensers (Open Water, The Reef, 47 Meters Down) but plays a different game. Most of these are stories of implacable, unbeatable natural menace (tending to downbeat endings), but this is more like a survival-against-the-odds-in-the-wild picture (127 Hours, Castaway) with a competent, smart heroine who makes use of the resources to hand to keep going. As is traditional, Nancy suffers a bad wound and has to patch herself up – using her earrings as sutures – then fight against pain and delirium. In these stories, it’s always useful to have something for the lone protagonist to talk to – and here a watch that counts down to the high tide serves for a while before the heroine fixes on ‘Steven Seagull’ a blood-spattered bird whose dislocated wing she sets and who lasts a lot longer than the ‘there are no sharks here’ surfers and the drunken opportunist thief who serve as bloody chum to keep the shocks coming. It prolongs the agony for a taut 86 minutes, with wicked twists – Nancy has a chance to move to a more secure perch on a buoy but has to swim through a shoal of stinging jellyfish to get there …she gets a flare gun from the buoy as a ship hoves in view but drops the cartridges in the sea and fires off a dud …
Scripted by Anthony Jaswinksi (Kristy, Vanishing on 7th Street), this is director Jaume Collet-Serra’s break from a string of Liam Neeson vehicles (though he didn’t make The Grey, which might be another influence) and his most uproariously committed pulp effort since the deliriously odd Orphan. To put it mildly, Collet-Serra is not a subtle filmmaker, but he does tosh with conviction – and is here abetted by Lively’s star turn in a gruelling role as the chick who drifts off course into danger and then turns everything around to fight back. Early on, there’s spectacular surfing footage – Nancy’s neat trick is diving under foaming breakers to get further out to sea – to set up the peril of the shallows. The shark is used sparingly, but puts the dodgier digital likes of the Megashark and Sharknado films to shame with photo-realistic jaws-action. An old harpoon in the creature’s mouth evokes the British comic strip Hookjaw, but also gives this particular menace a bit more character – the script takes care to establish a reason for the fish hanging around where it’s not supposed to be (Nancy has strayed into its feeding ground) and to establish that it has its own natural enemies in the jellyfish and scraping coral (which the heroine has to cope with too) but of course its job is to be a movie monster. It scores one great leap-and-chomp appearance, a couple of excellent gore moments and – for once – the bloody resolution to the conflict is spectacular enough to pay off all the build-up.
Very interesting to read your jaw jawing about this movie.
Kim, I’m guessing you mean to refer to the Robert Zemeckis 2000 movie “Cast Away”, rather than the very similarly-titled Nic Roeg 1986 picture “Castaway”?