When I first heard about a potential true spirit-sequel to Steven Spielberg’s 1975 mystery masterpiece ‘Jaws’, it was hard not be intrigued. Shark-fair has been so incredulously overdone in the past decade from ‘Jurassic Shark’ to ‘Snow Shark’ to ‘Ghost Shark’ to ‘Sharknado’ and everything in between (honestly, all those are real films). There hasn’t been a whole lot of effort put into respectfully pimping out arguably the greatest stock movie character of all time hailing from superorder Selachimorpha. However, ‘The Shallows’ might just have changed that. Upon leaving director Jaume Collet-Serra’s latest disaster-piece – starring the lovely Blake Lively – an inner debate permeated my mind. While a legitimately entertaining way to spend an hour and a half, was it actually any good?
On the one hand, there are three good things we know to be true. First, Blake Lively is a total babia majora. Lively steals the one-woman show with an edgy look of panic and sophistication; she genuinely makes being terrorised by a vicious great white look cool. In an effort for strong, independent women-who-don’t-need-no-man everywhere, Lively fights as fiercely as her character Nancy lives – with no fear, only grit. Second, sharks make for fantastic villains. Sharks have no regard for human rules, disregard all common decencies, and never, ever make the cliché master plan speech that eventually runs a second too long, allowing our heralded protagonist to escape and foil them. Sharks get to the point; there’s no easy way out when it’s mano-y-sharko. Third, a bottle-technique (one location throughout) thriller set on the water with no reasonable way to escape is high drama. There’s nowhere for Nancy to go while she’s stuck on the rock in the middle of the sea waiting for high tide to force her hand. She’s literally stuck between a rock and a hard (toothy) place. Good luck breast stroking it 200 yards to shore, with Jaws 2.0 on your tail. ‘The Shallows’ has all three going for it.
On the other hand, ‘The Shallows’ is historically tacky with its limited dialogue. Outside of the tubular “surf’s up” nod to her fellow surfers, Lively’s inner/outer monologue whiffs harder than Lionel Messi in a penalty shootout (apologies to non-football fans with that one). In accordance, Collet-Serra’s insistence on importing formula backstory into an otherwise hip get-up, is a real bummer. Why does Nancy’s backstory matter? Her mom didn’t have to die of cancer and her dad’s displeasure at Nancy ditching medical school didn’t have to push her further away, to where she ended up on a remote Mexican beach looking for gnarly waves. That could’ve happened much more organically with the line, “Hey I’m Nancy. I’m in Mexico because I like to affordably vacation and I love riding gnarly surf”. Nancy didn’t need such a stressful past to be an adventure seeker. It’s often better to leave the bygone narrative buildup out of it and let the viewer interpret a character’s motivations, as recently seen in 2016 hit ‘Green Room’.
‘The Shallows’ is not without its revolutionary film techniques though. Where Collet-Serra lets us down with average storytelling, he makes up for with high quality tech-integration in transposing Nancy’s mobile phone into a character. This could be the future of film, people. Yes, we’ve all seen the text bubble conversations in various movies, but in 2016 our phones are more than just quick texts and calls – mobile phones are our lives. They hold our memories, our responsibilities, and almost all the data any decent law enforcement would need to incriminate us at a moment’s notice. Just look at the recent concerns over the US government monitoring Snapchat’s filters as facial recognition software. Mobile phones are an extension of ourselves in many facets. Which leads to my point that the way Collet-Serra juxtaposes Nancy’s Instagram, FaceTime, texts, etc. with Nancy herself, creates a new character on the screen. Further, her only ally while stuck on that rock all alone is the buoyant surfing helmet with a GoPro attached to it. We’re living in a world where a GoPro helmet is a bonafide character, with the real power to save the day, if it makes it ashore in time. That’s perhaps a world where ‘The Shallows’ isn’t half bad.