Gossip Girl versus great white isn’t nearly as cool as it sounds. In The Shallows, the battle of wills between Blake Lively and a merciless killing machine is largely witless, lacking any of the mythos of Jaws or the bleakness of Open Water. Director Jaume Collet-Serra spends plenty of time ogling Lively’s surfer bod and not enough making the stressful situation and its terror palpable. As a disposable thriller The Shallows has its moments, but they’re not enough to make you think twice before diving into the ocean.
Nancy (Lively) ducked out of medical school following the death of her mother and is being guided by her free spirit. Her latest adventure is a trek to catch some waves off a Mexican beach her mother once visited. She shares the secluded cove with two surfer dudes for a time before they take off. Nancy wants to grab “one last wave.” Just as the guys leave shouting distance, Nancy is attacked by a shark and badly injured. Finding refuge atop a floating whale carcass and eventually making her way to a rock exposed by the low tide, options seem limited as the shark circles.
The script from Anthony Jaswinski quickly sets up the particulars of Nancy’s motivation without getting too mechanical. A chatty car ride with nice guy Carlos (Óscar Jaenada), who drives Nancy to the beach, works to establish her adventurous nature and sweetness as she speaks in broken Spanish. A FaceTime call with dad and sister provides exposition while managing to feel natural.
Tension builds effectively as Nancy prepares on the beach with close-ups of her equipment (and that surfer bod), and deepens as she paddles out to the breakers, diving below and then bobbing on the water’s surface. We know what’s going to happen, it’s just a matter of when. And, after a false alarm or two, it happens, and The Shallows doesn’t know what to do from there.
Nancy is gravely injured and alone – except for a seagull with a broken wing marooned on the rock with her, which is a nice touch, but after that initial shock the desperation doesn’t cut all that deep. The tension is broken, and instead of a steady deterioration of Nancy’s physical and mental well-being, we get a series of familiar moments. There’s some quick self-surgery (med school coming in handy) that would be much more unsettling if Lively wasn’t talking through it; under the guise of calming herself as she would calm a patient, she’s really just explaining to the audience exactly what she’s doing, which becomes an unfortunate crutch of the movie.
The two surfer dudes eventually come back and an unhelpful drunk appears on the beach because this is a shark movie and the shark needs to eat. The attacks are there solely to serve expectations. The GoPro strapped to one of the surfer’s heads is there to splice in some different camera angles. The POV is just as uninspired as Collet-Serra’s shot selection, which includes several looks from the depths up to limbs dangling over surfboards as the sun beams through the water. Some of the underwater slo-mo is gorgeous, if a tad showy.
The Shallows really goes off the deep end in the final act, switching from harrowing tale to dumb action movie. For a woman who hasn’t had anything to eat or drink for a couple days and with gangrene occurring in the leg, Nancy shows off impeccable timing in delivering some one-liners. Lively is a magnetic screen presence and has the range for us to buy her as plucky surfer and tough, resourceful survivor. It’s too bad that instead of truly battling the elements she’s forced to fight against good sense.