Deep horror, shallow exploitation

Lively pushes herself to the limit here and does a fantastic job, but this script is so reliant on the lead role I can’t help but wonder how much further a stronger actor could have elevated it. Photos courtesy Columbia Pictures.

Looking up The Shallows, you notice a few things — it stars Blake Lively, who can’t act, it’s directed by Juame Collet-Serra, who only directs awful Liam Neeson vehicles that aren’t even the famous ones, and it’s sitting at a respectable 75 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, far-and-away the highest-rated live action movie out right now.

The movie follows Nancy Adams (Lively) through a nightmare trip to the beach. Adams has recently lost her mother, a fellow surfer, and to get away from it all, Adams has come to the far reaches of Mexico to a beach her mother said was where she found out she was pregnant. After a day of catching waves on the secluded strand, Adams is attacked by a shark, hobbled, and stranded on a rock just out of earshot from the shore. In several hours, the tide will come in and she will be submerged again.

The Shallows is getting a ton of praise as a taut thriller. It’s probably the most exciting movie out right now, but that’s at least partially for lack of trying on Hollywood’s part. This movie has a rich, layered script and some stunning visuals, but spends way too much time on Collet-Serra’s weird conceits and Lively’s Oakland booty.

The ostensibly streamlined movie begins with 20-30 excruciating minutes of setup. This period isn’t bad because it’s too long — it probably is, but the groundwork it lays is actually a strength — it’s bad because it looks like it was shot and edited by a crazy person. There’s a rhythm to dialogue scenes that gets completely ignored here, and shots cut in these scenes with no rhyme or reason and no relation to what’s going on in the conversation. Most of this period, shots only get a split second of time before cutting to something else, but this is all in a rotation of three or four shots per scene so it’s not like the camera actually has anywhere else important to be.

Then, even during longer shots, they’ll frequently rack from normal speed to slow-motion and back to normal speed again, all in the span of about four seconds, maintaining this bizarre, hectic feel to the camerawork for what should be a calm period in the movie. Shots also frequently racks focus from foreground to background and back again to the same effect, though this is much less justifiable. The slow motion shots are pulling that 300 trick to highlight a stunt — though just ducking underneath a wave constitutes a stunt in this context, apparently — the racking focus is just weird and seems to be because of inept cameramen.

It’s actually an interesting issue. This is one of The Shallows’ more memorable butt shots. It’s a great surfing shot and far from the typical “look at this ass” tracking shot, and there’s an argument to be made that Lively’s bum only draws the eye as much as it does because it’s really that magnificent. That said, they clearly made design choices to accentuate it and the camera frequently makes awkward glances down her top. The exploitation aspects are uncomfortable and clearly intentional, but I guess they’re not exactly harmful. It’s tacky, but people like butts. The Shallows has so much more to offer that its intense focus on Lively’s body doesn’t really sink it.

Then there’s the sexpoitation overtones, which primarily come from this stretch.

Once the shark finally shows up, The Shallows reveals that it’s worth the wait. The last hour or so of this movie is not only riveting, but extremely rich. The movie plays with tight shots of Adams suturing her wound and Lively does a great job of playing up every detail of her plight. The shark is reminiscent of that famously awful cgi scene in Deep Blue Sea, but thankfully mostly hidden from the viewer. The best shots are of its shadow approaching Adams under a wave — check it out at 0:30 of this clip — and any time there’s blood in the water. Despite being mostly blue by necessity, The Shallows manages dazzling bursts of color this way.

The movie is also extremely engaging thematically. There’s a lot of birth symbolism and symbolism related to Adams’ family at play. As a whole, the movie is about Adams’ mental state — she seeks isolation in her grief, turning away her two remaining family members to go to the beach, then once there turns away two fellow surfers and ends up stranded on a rock. The movie contains additional subtext about danger, specifically encroaching danger. The beach is called Paradise, but Adams forgets its name almost immediately upon learning it and at several points locals refuse to give it to her again. It should be the safest place in the world, but there’s a monster shark hanging around. The film’s tagline, “What was once in the deep is now in the Shallows,”  plays with this theme. The biblical context of Adams’ last name can’t be overlooked either. This is a movie that will thoroughly reward subsequent viewings.

Leopold Knopp is a formerly professional film critic, licensed massage therapist and journalism student at the University of North Texas. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter @reelentropy, and shoot questions to reelentropy@gmail.com.

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