There really aren’t many requirements for what Blake Sheldon, in his Save the Cat! screenwriting guide, called a “Monster in the House” movie. All you need is a monster (human, animal, miscellaneous), a house (a confined space) and someone to kill the monster. Films of this type subconsciously remind us of our primitive roots before we topped the food chain. Thus they are usually effective, regardless of their quality. Still, Monster in the House films like Alien and Jaws have risen above their peers to become thrilling art. The Shallows, a fresh contender in that category, aspires for Jaws greatness without aping its formula. It doesn’t fully succeed, yet manages to rise above its own B-movie limitations.
The Shallows takes place exclusively in an unnamed beach in Mexico. Or rather New South Wales, Australia filling in for Mexico. (Sí, Oz turk err jubs, durka dur!) Texas surfer/med school dropout Nancy (Blake Lively) travels to this pristine paradise, her recently deceased mom’s favorite place, for some mourning through tubular therapy. She meets two locals there (Mexican surf stars Ángelo José Lozano Corzo and José Manuel Trujillo Salas). They are the only other people in this secluded area. They eventually tell her it’s getting late before they leave. Ignoring their advice, Nancy stays behind to catch the last wave of the day.
What she gets instead is visited by the biggest, most resentful ocean predator this side of Deep Blue Sea. Nancy flees to a nearby humpback whale carcass, a nasty leg wound in tow. The beast then chases her to a lone rock that surfaces with the tide. Trapped, bleeding, hungry and freezing, her options get limited. She must accept her demise or outwit the primal predator. All the while the shore is so close, yet seems so far.
The Shallows Got Deep
Plots don’t get much more bare-bones than this. The Shallows could’ve simply coasted on its survival horror concept and still pleased genre fans. So it’s so gratifying to see its filmmakers show as much effort as they do. Director Jaume Collet-Serra (Orphan) and his collaborators understand that comparisons to shark classics like Jaws and Open Water would be unavoidable, so they embrace them while sprinkling their film with elements from other, possibly less obvious inspirations like Gravity.
The Shallows never matches Gravity‘s technical prowess or dramatic turns. Also, the Oscar winning space drama by Alfonso Cuarón hasn’t a monster per se. (Sheldon would most likely put it in his “Dude with a Problem” category.) Still, its influence on The Shallows is quite palpable without being carbon-copy. Both its female leads, for instance, ride a similar roller coaster of desolation, vulnerability and loss before willing themselves to fight for their survival.
Collet-Serra and scribe Anthony Jaswinski know exposition would slow The Shallows down. They also understand it’s necessary to make the audience care for Nancy’s plight. They solve both problems by finding clever, unobtrusive ways to deliver her backstory. Chief among these is superimposing Nancy’s smartphone screen every time she uses it. Her pictures, texts and video chats with her dad and little sister fill in the gaps. It’s the best use of this resource I remember. It is never overused and the moments it is applied never feel gratuitous.
Seriously Scary Fun
Collet-Serra and Jaswinski also understand their fans are looking for scares, not magical realism flights of fancy (e.g. Ang Lee’s Life of Pi) nor mute, Hemingway-ish ruminations on mortality (such as J.C. Chandor’s Robert Redford vehicle, All is Lost). They want good, scary fun and that they get. Even though they play the material straight, they find ways to liven up the proceedings. The language barrier wit of driver Carlos (Óscar Jaenada), for instance. There’s also the wounded seagull Nancy names Steven (not John Livingston?) and treats as a livelier version of Wilson from Castaway. That unbelievably non-CGI bird is the unsung co-star of this piece. Cinematographer Flavio Labiano and the CGI effects crew also keep things interesting with their shark related shots. Not all are as convincing as those in films like Kon-Tiki. Still, they all seem lifted from real-life viral video encounters or Best-of Shark Week clips, which gives them extra weight.
The Lively Monologues
In the end, though, The Shallows works as much as it does because of Blake Lively. It’s her show all the way. It helps that she’s so photogenic Labiano shows her off as lovingly as his sunny compositions. But she’s also Blake Lively from Beantown crime thriller The Town. The impressive and ethereal Blake Lively from retro fantasy The Age of Adaline. (Also, one-fourth of The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. Just saying!) She has the chops and boy does she showcase them here. Her compelling Castaway-meets-The-Little-Prince one-woman show carries The Shallows. Moreover, she gives Nancy an emotional depth that elevates the film from a simple genre exercise. Between this, her hubby Ryan Reynolds’ Valentine’s Day comeback in Deadpool and the fact both are expecting their second child, this has been a great year in the Reynolds-Lively (Lively-Reynolds?) household.
Alas, for all its aspirations, The Shallows falls victim to genre expectations and its own willingness to please. Either monster, victim or both must perish, as in all Monster in the House flicks. So to justify his possible demise without angering the wildlife conservationists, the shark goes from force of nature to “Evil!” and is given an agenda. (“Gonna get you, my pretty, and your little bird, too!”) As a result, the third act becomes a somewhat unnecessary showdown of ridiculous, Sharknado-like proportions. And just when you think it’s safe to go back in the w… I mean, assume The Shallows will end on the perfect note, it chickens out at the last minute. Matt Zoller Seitz, from the Roger Ebert website, pointed this out better than I could.
Still, it’s pointless to take jabs at a a B-movie. Especially one that delivers so well on its own promises and, clocking at under 90 minutes, avoids overstaying its welcome. Blake Sheldon’s most common screenwriting tip was probably: “Give me the same… but different!” The Shallows, B-student that it is, earn itself a gold star in that regard.
Available on the iTunes Store and on Blu-ray.
Movie title: The Shallows
Movie description: Better than it has to be, The Shallows is less a Jaws wannabe and more a thrilling tale of female survival in the vein of Gravity.
Date published: 2016-09-13
Director(s): Jaume Collet-Serra
Actor(s): Blake Lively, Óscar Jaenada, Brett Cullen, Sedona Legge, Janelle Bailey
Genre: Horror, Suspense