Sharks: the stuff of nightmares for many even in their completely natural state, it has long been too great a temptation for filmmakers to make these creatures even more formidable than they might have otherwise been, from the aquarium-invading, seemingly-omniscient sharks of the Jaws franchise, via the genetically-enhanced sharks of Deep Blue Sea in the nineties right through to the utter farce of many of SyFy’s recent offerings. I had understood that The Shallows was an attempt to dial back this level of farce, choosing to represent the Great White as an undoubtedly bloodthirsty, but nonetheless natural foe acting normally within its own habitat. Well, this wasn’t quite the case, and as a result The Shallows is an odd mishmash between the super-sharks of films gone by and the slow, endurance horrors of the likes of Adrift. That’s not to say it’s not entertaining, mind – it just takes a somewhat slapdash approach to its chosen subject matter.
Twentysomething surf chick Nancy (Blake Lively) is somewhere in remote Mexico: where, exactly, we’re never told and despite the fact that Nancy clearly has a very good roaming data package, judging by the annoying superimposed Instagram images on-screen to let us know which social media she’s using at that moment, she never looks it up on Google Maps. What we do know, however, is that she is visiting a specific beach in honour of her deceased mother, who surfed there herself when Nancy was just an embryo. Nancy has secured a lift to said beach with a local, but as she doesn’t know where she is and has not bothered to secure a lift back, some might say that the horror of this film could have taken a different turn at this point. Nonetheless, our surfer peels down to her bikini – the abundant ass shots being entirely accidental (oh, I have no issue with on-screen titillation, but I do appreciate a filmmaker being honest about it being such) – and she heads off on her board.
Some slow-mo sequences of surfing ensue. The long shots and some of the action footage in the film are very impressive, as is Lively’s stuntwoman for these scenes, and you do begin to get a sense of one of the film’s absolute necessities – showing human swimmers as massively vulnerable in expanses of open water, even if they are within sight of the beach and almost of the heavily-signposted first aid kit which Nancy has tossed aside. This idyll can’t last long, of course, and when Nancy accidentally gets too close to a nearby whale carcass, a very large shark decides it’s going to leave the easy, abundant meal it already has in order to stalk this poor woman.
This is probably the point at which I stopped being gripped by the film, started to wonder at its rationale – but continued to be diverted by it. Here, despite the fact that Nancy is forced to hop between the carcass itself and several other rather pitiful, barely-out-of-the-water pit stops, it didn’t quite feel like the bitter struggle for survival that it might have been. It does boast an array of very effective sequences, and yes, you get a sense of her isolation, particularly with the changing tides and times of day, but the shark itself quickly morphs into something between evil genius and weapon of mass destruction, though not without the sense of threat dipping in certain scenes for expediency’s sake, too. I’m no shark expert – though I’ve watched the Discovery Channel just like anyone else – but it seems an odd approach to show the animal as somehow having formed a vendetta against a human which compels them to chomp through steel to get at them, then at other moments to miss said human swimming underneath them. There are some oddly laughable moments, too: look, a person can’t give a teary eulogy to a camera with a friendly seagull looking over her shoulder, and nor should you wrap things up with a moment of Hallmark sentimentality so ferocious that it beats the shark’s ferocity hands down. All of these are odd decisions with regards to tone, and honestly, the film is at its best when it forgets to do any of this, and simply concentrates on what it would be like to be alone and terrified at sea.
So – any ideas I might have had about this being a more realistic shark movie were completely wrong. That’s my fault, of course. Perhaps sharks just aren’t that threatening to humans, not really, and need to be supersized/genetically-modified/in a tornado to really make it in cinema. Certainly, to an extent The Shallows has tried to redress that balance, hasn’t succeeded, but has turned out some good sequences and entertaining content nonetheless, even if you’re laughing at the film a good deal of the time.