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Review: The Shallows – “An often painful and petrifying wince-a-long”

Nancy (Blake Lively) in Columbia Pictures' THE SHALLOWS.

The Shallows is a shark survival horror starring Blake Lively (Gossip Girl, The Green Lantern). The film is directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, who has previously helmed two Liam Neeson “Dad action” movies: Non Stop and Unknown; and two serviceable horrors: The Orphan and the House of Wax remake. In case you forgot, or haven’t seen it, The Shallows also had this rad “self reliance” trailer:

Opening on a smashed helmet and a shattered surfboard, The Shallows flashes back to explain what befell Nancy (Lively) on her jaunt down Mexico way to find her dead mom’s favourite secret surf spot. Nancy is a med school dropout telephonically juggling her father pressurising her to “not throw it all away” and a little sister who is grieving too – while also trying to deal with her own feelings of loss, and find her self and her way again. Locating and surfing the hidden Mexican beach her mom shredded while pregnant with her seems like an ideal way to do this, and after bonding with two local dudes, they head home – leaving her all alone to go out… one… last… time…

A great white shark dinks Nancy off of her board and bites her leg, then the waves scrape her across some coral and she scrambles for shelter atop the disintegrating remains of a dead whale: the shark’s earlier lunch. As the shark lays in wait, patiently circling, Nancy must use every ounce of her med school enhanced survival skills to fix herself up and avoid – and perhaps escape – the hunger and jaws of the perfect predator.

Shark movies are nothing new, but the main things that set The Shallows aside and elevate it to at least Deep Blue Sea standard are the slick way it’s put together, and the central performance by Blake Lively. Things as simple as visually incorporating cellphone activity onscreen can be easily bungled – hi, Yoga Hosers – but this is done with panache, making Nancy feel connected via a visual language that reflects the multi-screen multi-focus multi-tasking we all do every day.

All the surfing scenes feel genuine, with the power and size of the waves coming across, as well as the simple joy of carving and tubing them. These sequences are wonderfully shot, but there’s always a niggle stopping you from getting completely involved. Shadows in the sea and worryingly struck chords keep reminding you that there is a razor-toothed menace lingering on the periphery, ready to strike at any second.

Blake Lively is a likeable lead, beaming and bossy, apologetically American, and with alert and intelligent eyes showing she is always thinking and evaluating, meaning a not-for-the-squeamish scene where she uses her jewellery to stitch her leg back together does not actually feel outlandish or beyond her skill set. Frustratingly undercutting Lively’s MacGyver-in-a-bikini portrayal of Nancy are some gratuitous butt shots, and a creepily lingering close-up of her zipping up her wet suit that pushes her boobs together.

And, post-shark-attack, the film loses its edge. The subtlety evaporates, there’s just too much shown of the shark, and it’s surprisingly too funny. Nancy endures a seemingly never-ending procession of terrible events – like a Revenant beach party – which should make for unbearable punishing tension, but this is broken up by interactions with a comedy seagull sidekick called “Steven Seagull”.

There are many shots, shocks and sequences you won’t have seen in a shark movie before, and even some odd moments of strange beauty – like an undersea jellyfish light show – but The Shallows constantly bails on the suspense it creates, and rushes its ending. Everything up to that point has been carefully set up and justified, while the finale does not do this at all. This leaves you questioning, as much as gasping, at the final set-piece, before a close-to-parody post script totally bodges the ending.

Kind of like The Martian meets Jaws filtered though Blue Crush, The Shallows is an often painful and petrifying wince-a-long, but unfortunately it plays itself by trying to get you to roll in the aisle laughing at a surfing seabird, when it should have left you on the edge of your seat.


The Shallows is in UK cinemas on 12th August 2016.


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