Every time a shark movie rolls around, the inevitable comparisons to Jaws follow close behind, but The Shallows actually plays more like a poor man’s 127 Hours. Sure there’s a finned predator, and yes, there’s some gore and even the requisite scary music, but Jaws was an instant classic–stuffed to the, er, gills with colorful characters, memorable dialogue, and a compelling story.
The Shallows, meanwhile, like James Franco’s 2010 bio-pic of climber Aron Ralston, is the story of one person facing certain death in a harrowing situation. The Shallows‘ entire cast list is only four people long, and dialogue is as sparse at it was in the middle section of Tom Hanks’ Cast Away.
Director Jaume Collet-Serra (Non Stop, Run All Night) is no stranger to thrillers, and writer Tony Jaswinski’s original script (more on that later) is a borderline brilliant piece of work; it actually made the 2014 Blacklist of the best un-produced screenplays. But something happened on the way to the set. Hollywood got it hands on it, and The Shallows suffers mightily for it.
Blake Lively stars as Nancy, a disillusioned med school student who’s dealing with her mother’s recent death by traveling to a remote beach in Mexico–the same beach her mother surfed while pregnant with her. During her last run of the day, Nancy is attacked by a great white only two hundred yards from shore, leaving her bloodied and stranded on a small rock outcrop. Let the survival games begin.
Before long, it becomes clear that The Shallows is yet another rote tale governed by Murphy’s Law. The tide is coming in, a storm is following close behind, and Nancy’s only possible human salvation is a lone drunk who steals her backpack. Much is also made of a gargantuan whale carcass a hundred feet away, begging the question, “Why would a shark even look at a measly little hot dog when a free, expansive buffet is right there for the taking?”
There’s plenty of suspense and chill-inducing action in The Shallows, and the photography by Collet-Serra’s cinematographer-buddy Flavio Labiano is more stunning than not. Lively, too, more than holds her own, giving one of the better performances of her admittedly (pun intended) shallow career. But there’s also plenty to roll your eyes at.
Apparently Collet-Serra was given no shortage of directives from the studio (Sony), including “Spend a lot of time focusing on Lively’s bikini,” and “Don’t be afraid to stretch the movie out with some of that awesome Baywatch slo-mo everyone loves.” Before the movie even gets going, Collet-Serra takes what seems like an eternity to simply show us how Nancy puts on a wetsuit and velcros her board to her wrist. And that’s to say nothing of the film’s climax, which is borderline silly.
As for that screenplay, it’s worth your time to read the Jaswinski’s original treatment, back when it was known as In the Deep. (Google “simplyscripts the shallows”, and you’ll find it.) It’s criminal how much more thoughtful, honest, and memorable the film could have been.
The end result doesn’t, alas, doesn’t hold much water, and its faults considerably outweigh its upside. Instead of drawing any serious comparison to 127 Hours (much less Jaws) The Shallows flounders early and often as little more than a forgettable B-movie-esque wannabe.