First things first – Blake Lively is gorgeous. The camera loves every unconventional angle of her face. Her long, fairy-tale blonde hair flaps as though in sync with wind patterns. She really is Barbie Goes Surfing. But, that is as shallow as “The Shallows” gets. It’s a clever way for the director to subvert the viewers’ expectations that the film they are about to see is a story of a pretty girl in distress. Once all pretences have been plucked away, “The Shallows” becomes a bona fide thriller.
The plot of “The Shallows” isn’t all that original or unique. In this genre of filmmaking, originality isn’t necessarily as pivotal to a film’s success as the actor’s willingness to survive throughout the following 90 minutes or so. Blake Lively plays Nancy Adams, a recent medical school dropout due to the emotional duress of her mother’s death. She decides to visit the same beach her mother visited years ago around the time she found out she was pregnant with Nancy. Therefore, the visit to this beach is setting up the film to be an exercise in healing and closure. The imagery here becomes integral to the plot’s development. The clear, blue waters represent the confrontation of one’s past, and the beaches’ absence of people can only set up our protagonist on a journey to confront her emotions and feelings without any distractions.
When Nancy leaves her cell phone in her backpack on the beach before embarking on what is to be a very terrible surfing adventure, she’s saying goodbye to the life she lived and immerses herself into a baptism of sorts. A symbolic rebirth, if you will. I don’t know if this is what the director envisioned, but as someone who has seen many, many films, I feel like this subtext is too coincidental to let slide by.
Aside from meeting two local surfers, Nancy is solo on this journey. After speaking with her father and sister (represented by some smart visual methods by the director) on the cell phone she leaves back on the beach, she gets in the water. After taking in some waves, she sees an enormous whale carcass floating in the water. Clearly noticing it’s a sign of danger, she decides to take the next rolling waves back to the beach. This is where the action starts.
A big, menacing shark decides to bump Nancy’s surfboard and take a big chunk out of her leg. Running on adrenaline, she takes refuge on a nearby reef, where she devises a makeshift tourniquet for her profusely bleeding wound. Spending the night in intense pain, she has a glimmer of hope the next morning where she sees a local man on the beach. Trying to signal him to get help, she only succeeds in having him get in the water (after stealing her cell phone) and getting eaten by the shark. This shark is ruthless…and hungry. And clearly only frequents this particular beach.
There’s more waiting for help, and there’s plenty more blood. Instead of becoming the stereotype victim in thrillers, Nancy is resourceful and resilient. She seems to understand that there might be a way to safety, and with the comic device of an injured seagull by her side, she tries to outsmart the shark and get to a nearby buoy which has flare guns.
What follows is a little bit of cat and mouse between Nancy and Shark. They’re both great swimmers, and begin to mirror one another in terms of motion and behaviours. The film is relatively short and clocks in under 90 minutes, thus the tension is not drawn out. This short running time also prevents the viewer from screaming out “Bad Idea!” or tsk-tsking aplenty at the screen.
In films such as “The Shallows” where a lone popular star is in peril for two hours, (see Gravity or Cast Away), the story is often just a way to showcase a certain actor’s acting abilities. There’s no really getting way from bad acting in a film where there is only one actor on-screen (minus a CGI shark, of course). Blake Lively certainly does not disappoint in this respect. She commands the screen, her likeability radiating in every scene. I don’t quite get why there’s so much ambivalence regarding Lively’s screen presence. It’s actually sort of hypocritical in that when Lively is being criticized for her acting, critics usually comment on her beauty. The two can be mutually exclusive but not in Hollywood, apparently. It’s like some big revelation that a pretty actor can act.
Pleasantly surprised by “The Shallows,” I recommend it to those who like fun, and thrilling, summer blockbusters. It won’t change your life, but it will certainly entertain you for a good 86 minutes.