“The island of the pregnant woman”
Not all shark movies should be compared to Jaws—not even The Shallows. If you were to make any type of correlation cinema-wise it should be Cast Away meets Gravity or All Is Lost. The idea here is to put a character in isolation during a survival moment where hope can be lost in an instant. Will he/she prevail? Will he/she give him/herself the opportunity to live? Most of us would give up as soon as that shark’s vice-grip tightened around our thigh. Kicking and screaming will do little, flailing and fear weighs us down. For Nancy (Blake Lively), however, there are extenuating circumstances to her drive forward. At a crossroads in life, she finds her mettle when she needs it most. Unfortunately, even that doesn’t guarantee tomorrow.
It wasn’t originally envisioned for director Jaume Collet-Serra, but I’m not sure anyone else would have been a better selection. Written by Anthony Jaswinski, this horror/thriller is perfectly suited to the Spaniard’s sensibilities with sequences ripe to pop up cellphone footage a la Non-Stop and segues of vantage point inserts courtesy of overhead beauty a la Run All Night. Collet-Serra and cinematographer Flavio Martínez Labiano create some stunning shots of the crystal clear ocean water off the coast of Mexico as well as underwater glimpses as gorgeously cropped and colored as they are tense-filled moments of potential shark sightings. That first bite of blood permeates the frame from bottom to top, engulfing the victim in an otherworldly yet all-natural glow. No visual flourish is ignored.
The way in which distance is shown also finds inventive ways to use focus and depth to situate us by Lively’s side. There’s a foggy aura around her sightlines when morning comes and water is rubbed away; the miscommunication of language barriers and emotional duress separated by meters of supposed serenity made unsafe. Her Nancy is quick to guess how far she is from shore, a dead whale, and a floating buoy—each one measured against the other to see which provides her already immobile leg the best chance of escape. And through everything is the faintest voice heard and dismissed mere minutes earlier: “Don’t quit.” Her mother didn’t quit when diagnosed with cancer; life just had other plans. Faced with her own mortality, Nancy follows suit.
So we spend the 87-minute runtime on a small portion of rock exposed during low tide with no one but Nancy. Potential saviors and probable victims come and go during her twenty-four hour struggle to hold on as her predator circles, but they’re merely periphery players on her journey to self-discovery and inner strength. Certain aspects are blatantly contrived for convenience sake—the fact her one true friend Steve the Seagull is injured in a way that her medical expertise can help is hokey but forgivable—and yet there’s no real alternate path to tell the story. If she weren’t a former med student she’d have died thirty minutes in. Having the foresight to create makeshift sutures and compression sleeves is believable because of that background.
The always-hovering spirit of Nancy’s mother (who visited this same “secret” beach when pregnant with her) adds emotional weight; the defeat in her father’s voice (Brett Cullen) asking her location sparks a back and forth cementing her mindset. Jaswinski crafts a story that works as much onscreen as it would in her head like some sort of psychological manifestation of the war within. The shark is her insecurity and fear of the future—the futility of life. The dead whale is med school all but skewered and yet still beating to provide necessary assistance. Steven is her sister Chloe (Sedona Legge), alive but better off with her around. Nancy becomes both doctor and patient using two distinct voices in order to reconcile them into one.
It’s a powerful metaphor despite being obvious and Lively is up to the task of providing the heartfelt emotion necessary to care about her safety. She’s a good egg (unlike her friend stuck at the hotel with a hangover). She’s endearing enough to make fast friends with her ride to the beach (Óscar Jaenada‘s Carlos) and fellow surfers (Jose Trujillo Salas and Angelo Lozano Corzo). And she even forsakes material goods if it means swaying a stranger to save her from this moment of desperation. We assume she’ll make it—probably as a result of something she does whether flare guns or videotaped message—and yet we crave watching her get the better of this enemy. Surviving pales in comparison to destroying her fear once and for all.
The only major criticism I have is for the subpar computer effects. Poor face swapping on Lively’s surfing double is unavoidable (the plasticity and blank stare in the midst of an adrenaline rush act appears as though a mask), but the laughable spatial dynamic between Nancy and a school of jellyfish is not. This exchange is a critical part of the climax and yet it feels cartoonish. The colors and glowing light is pretty until she swims by and all three-dimensionality disappears into a trio of flat layers consisting of foreground, mid-ground, and background. Even the shark biting down on the buoy looks authentic when put side-by-side with this sequence and its mouth slides more than mashes. There’s something to be said about Jaws and animatronics.
Thankfully it’s a small portion of the whole, a field of electric sting putting distance between woman and beast. Had the dramatics not been rendered so believable in performance and stakes I probably wouldn’t have minded because a level of shoddy CGI can add to the “ride” in such instances. So while it taints the experience, it doesn’t ruin it completely when the work on Lively’s injuries and deteriorating health with dry lips and bruised gashes is conversely spot-on. The film is ultimately about Nancy surviving her own psyche rather than the shark and in those terms The Shallows is great—a gorgeous setting with gorgeous actors up against a clock counting towards life or death. While not quite Collet-Serra’s best, it’s another pulse-pounding feather in his cap.
 Nancy (Blake Lively) in Columbia Pictures’ THE SHALLOWS. Courtesy of Columbia Pictures © 2016 CTMG, Inc. All Rights Reserved. **ALL IMAGES ARE PROPERTY OF SONY PICTURES ENTERTAINMENT INC. FOR PROMOTIONAL USE ONLY. SALE, DUPLICATION OR TRANSFER OF THIS MATERIAL IS STRICTLY PROHIBITED.
 Nancy (Blake Lively) with her sister Chloe (Sedona Legge) in Columbia Picture’s THE SHALLOWS. PHOTO BY: Vince Valitutti © 2016 CTMG, Inc. All Rights Reserved. **ALL IMAGES ARE PROPERTY OF SONY PICTURES ENTERTAINMENT INC. FOR PROMOTIONAL USE ONLY. SALE, DUPLICATION OR TRANSFER OF THIS MATERIAL IS STRICTLY PROHIBITED.
 Nancy (Blake Lively) in Columbia Pictures’ THE SHALLOWS. PHOTO BY: Vince Valitutti © 2016 CTMG, Inc. All Rights Reserved. **ALL IMAGES ARE PROPERTY OF SONY PICTURES ENTERTAINMENT INC. FOR PROMOTIONAL USE ONLY. SALE, DUPLICATION OR TRANSFER OF THIS MATERIAL IS STRICTLY PROHIBITED.