The Shallows

***

Reviewed by: Luke Shaw

The Shallows
"This is as much a film about femininity as Jaws was about masculinity."

Genre flicks are frequently a love 'em or hate 'em affair. B-Movie schlock often struggles against earnestness, and the desire to pay homage to classic films and genre tropes can see films hamstrung by reverence and affection. The classic shark attack formula is simple and lean like the predator it circles around. Protagonists end up isolated on the unforgiving waves and are taunted and haunted by creatures portrayed as more machine than fish.

The Shallows isn’t much different. Blake Lively’s Nancy revisits the idyllic, secret beach that her mother was surfing at when she found out she was pregnant, determined to try to complete a chain of personal events that sees her unmoored from her medical training and avoiding paternal advice.

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Like any twenty-something from Texas, her desire to cut the harshest of lines in the most bodacious of tubes is strong and honest, and sadly a little hokey looking thanks to some dubious high speed photography and not-so-seamless special effects. As a genre flick, however, there is a focus on exploitation, and as such the camera gets more than a little Sports Illustrated, which is a shame as Lively puts in a stellar performance when the camera stops idolising her.

There’s an underlying suggestion that this may all be part of a glossy calm before a storm, especially with some deft colour work that changes the tone of the film once the two surfer-dudes she bumps into take off and leave her stranded in a patch of the bay that turns out to be a Great White’s feeding ground.

Once the action kicks off, the film switches over to a different kind of exploitation, smoothly changing gears into a movie that’s less concerned with whether its heroine looks the part than with whether she take a beating from the worst mother nature can throw at her. It dares the audience to feel every cut, abrasion and beating that Nancy is tasked with enduring.

Jaume Collet-Serra’s directing and Anthony Jaswinski’s script ensure the screen is crammed with feminine imagery: an island that Nancy sees a pregnant woman’s profile in, the verdant ocean, a Great White so big that it’s unlikely to be a male, and Nancy’s many-faceted portrayal as a strong, caring, resourceful and resolute fighter. It’s well worth putting Jaws out of mind at this point, because this is as much a film about femininity as Jaws was about masculinity.

Along with the film's somewhat novel ideas, the excellent camera work by cinematographer Flavio Martínez Labiano elevates it beyond the expected genre fare. He excels at exploiting the mutability of water to great effect, hiding characters behind the undulating azure, and revels in peeking just below the waves where we know cold blooded threats lie.

Truthfully, the only things that get in the way of this being a transformative piece is its reliance on contrivance and set pieces that end up feeling far more artificial in structure than execution. The tension between some truly excellent imagery, a genuinely terrifying and imposing shark and the perfectly timed occurrences that allow Nancy to progress can grate a little. One particular sequence, possibly shoehorned in for 3D audiences, sees a swarm of jellyfish appear with eerie, clockwork efficiency, and it's hard to not feel short changed by such a weak narrative bullet point.

The finale ends up being just the right ratio of preposterousness versus impact and is only slightly undermined by the few final scenes. Taking the framework of the shark movie and turning it into a very hungry and very vicious metaphor for personal growth and challenge pushes the film further away from its genre roots than may be expected, but the Shallows' feminine motifs and metaphorical return to the crucible of life to be reborn are unfortunately dragged under the surface, bogged down by one two many contrivances and glossy music-video stylings.

Also, the seagull is very cute.

Reviewed on: 08 Aug 2016
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