By: Muneeb Arshid
It has now been 41 years since Jaws was first released in the US and is still the go-to film for every movie buff and casual film viewer when discussing shark-based films. Since then, no shark-based adaptation has really worked (except for Shark Week), mostly due to that inevitable comparison with the 1975 classic. Which brings us to the latest shark film, The Shallows. Has it got enough to at least get an honourable mention when putting it next to Jaws? Possibly, but with some caveats of course.
The Shallows revolves around Nancy, played by Blake Lively, who visits a secluded, secret beach in Mexico, one that has special familial ties. She wants to spend time surfing the massive waves of this very mysterious beach alone while disconnecting herself from personal issues back home with her family and her work/school life. Herself and two other surfer colleagues, however, are quite unaware of the danger lurking in the very shallow waters of this beach. After a successful first outing on the water, Nancy makes her way back for round 2, when all hell breaks loose. The initial attack leaves Nancy struggling with quite a gruesome shark bite on her upper thigh which leaves her in quite an excessive amount of pain. She then has to endure multiple issues at once, namely infection and gangrene setting in on her wound, the tide (as she is now stranded on a rock for over 24 hours), oh and that pesky little (huge!) shark. Eventually, there’s the ultimate payoff at the end, but I’ll leave that for your own viewing sakes.
Now, I’ll make this very clear, The Shallows is no Jaws. What Jaws was able to accomplish was truly remarkable considering all of the trouble the film went through during production. Jaws was able to succeed by instilling a certain fear of the massive fish that resonated with the audience for many years, while also not actually showing the shark in an excessive manner. Jaws succeeded partly due to the beautiful and haunting score that accompanied the film, most notably the “Shark theme” which has now become synonymous when indicating a suspenseful scene. That is where The Shallows loses out its fight against Jaws, it doesn’t create that hostile, fearing environment that Jaws successfully had, rather feeling like the director Jaume Collet-Serra intended to actually have the shark be the co-lead of the film and keep it on-screen as much as possible. The score of this film is initially a simple techno soundtrack which proceeds to use generic action setpiece themes. If anything, the accompanying music was actually quite annoying. There’s a certain fine-line of the build-up that is required for this type of film where if the central antagonist is on-screen for too long, then the film ends up in the predictable range and the scares or the fear-building within the audience is ultimately lost. That fine-line is perfectly achieved in Jaws, where you’re aware that the characters are being affected by the shark but don’t necessarily have much of an idea about its whereabouts until the final climactic ending. In The Shallows, save for about the first 20 minutes, the shark is essentially front and center along with Blake Lively and for me in the audience, it became very easy to identify the points where you knew that the shark was going to attack. I won’t however, say that there weren’t some thrilling moments in the film, especially when the two other surfers meet their horrible fate or the conclusion of the film where Nancy eventually deals with the shark (quite preposterously) but for the most part, the film is lacking the horror required for it to be considered a genre film.
The casting of Blake Lively in this role was also a bit of a sore spot because she’s not exactly the first actor you think of when starring in a big thriller like this. There’s nothing wrong with her performance, it’s nothing special but I can’t say that I disliked it. However, it feels as if this is a version of Lively had she been on 90210 instead of Gossip Girl. There is also a very leery way of shooting her close-ups (especially when in her bikini) that cinematographer Flavio Martínez Labiano has decided to employ. The problems were especially prominent in the first 20 minutes when Lively is initially removing her clothes to reveal her bikini and the shots are intentionally taken in slow-motion with a focus on either her back-side or breasts, with no amount of subtlety used either. Which, however, isn’t entirely to say that the overall cinematography is bad. The shots of the ocean, the surfing scenes, and the action sequences are incredibly well-done. They use quite a few overhead shots of Nancy on her surfboard getting ready to ride the waves. The beauty isn’t in the use of those shots, but the fact that, coupled with the beautiful, clear water, it allows for an overhead shot that makes you focus away from the character and towards the beautiful labyrinth of coral underneath the blue water.
So, of course, having to be a part of a genre that includes one of the best films of all time was always going to be a hurdle for The Shallows. For a week that featured duds in Independence Day: Resurgence and Free State of Jones (critically speaking), it is nice to see a shark-based film actually lead the way in terms of critic reviews. Was this film ever going to be Jaws, hell no! But, I would be lying that I didn’t enjoy The Shallows, albeit with its issues, but is definitely a pretty decent, and quite campy popcorn flick which might find its market for those watching at home.
The Shallows survives this critical shark hunt and receives a very respectable grade of C+ (6.8/10).