On an annual family holiday in Suffolk, it can take upwards of an hour walking around trying to find a decent enough signal on my phone to partake in a video call. And yet for Blake Lively’s Nancy, the lead in Jaume Collet-Serra’s The Shallows, she finds herself on an isolated, secret beach in the middle of nowhere, and yet has a perfectly undisrupted chat via Skype with her dad back in America. A small, seemingly innocuous detail that appears somewhat pedantic to linger on – yet it remains emblematic of a film that while undoubtedly entertaining, veers so far from realism that it distances itself from the viewer.
Distance, ironically, happens to be the film’s greatest antagonist, as Nancy, though instructed by the only other two people on the entire beach to return to shore as the sun begins to set, decides to have one last surf – only to encounter a dead whale. It appears she’s also unwittingly imposed on the dinner of a circling, and bloodthirsty shark, and so she rapidly climbs onto a rock, stranded 200 yards from the shore, as the great white shark looms nearby. With only a wounded seagull for company, Nancy must find a way to escape unharmed; mustering up any sense of courage and creativity to survive her finned oppressor.
The Shallows should not be judged based on its commitment to realism, but Collet-Serra does set this tale so deeply in the real world, using modern technology and social media as a means of driving the narrative forward, he inadvertently subscribes by the notion of realism to a point that, when it gets absurd, it is detrimental to the viewer’s investment. However, and while a film that thrives in the notion of simplicity, Anthony Jaswinski’s screenplay manages to find an uncontrived means of tying in a back-story for our protagonist, as we learn of her recent tragedy with her mother passing away. A small nugget of information, but enough to ensure we find ourselves on Nancy’s side, invested in her cause, which helps matters tremendously as her life becomes endangered. Collet-Serra has shot the water in a striking way too, glistening and sparkling in the sunlight, perfectly contradicting the narrative, as the sea becomes a deep source of anxiety; menacing in its sense of mystery, as we struggle to know exactly where the shark is – or even whether it’s still in the vicinity.
Lively, who impressed greatly in Age of Adeline, yet again proves her worth with an accomplished lead turn, though she is outshone in parts by the supporting seagull (give him a spin-off, yeah?). But where this film thrives is simply within the sub-genre it sits so comfortably in, as the shark movie – though seldom seen in contemporary film – can make for simply compelling cinema.