The Shallows

Year: 2016
Studio: Columbia Pictures
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Writer: Anthony Jaswinski
Cast: Blake Lively

It's interesting the way any movie about a shark portrays the monster. The way cinematic sharks behave says more about our fear of them because of shark movies themselves than what they're really like.

Studies have claimed humans don't taste very good to them, that sharks don't hold grudges or vendettas, and recent research even suggests they're surprisingly shy creatures who'd rather avoid us altogether if they can.

But because of the strictures of dramatic conflict, shark movies pay far more homage to Jaws and its progeny than something like the 2006 documentary Sharkwater, which looked at how comparatively harmless they are to humans while we kill 100 million of them every year.

As such, the monstrous foil to Blake Lively's winsome heroine behaves more like a serial killer, circling endlessly in its determination to get her.

Appropriate to the title, there's nothing deep about it. A pretty American girl, Nancy (Lively) goes to surf on a beach in Mexico, stumbles into the territory of a huge killer shark and spends the rest of the film trying to stay out of its toothy jaws.

There's enough disposable backstory to fill the set-up and try to make us care about her. She's close to her younger sister and emotionally estranged from her father, the surf trip a way of reconnecting with her dead mother's memory after the latter told Nancy about this very beach years before.

We learn all this as she talks on the phone to her family – all of it in curiously clear on-screen video despite it apparently being a remote beach in the middle of some rainforest somewhere in Mexico. For what must be the first time in a horror movie, the phone gets a perfect signal – it's just that when she needs it, she's left it on the beach.

After her arrival, the scenes showing Nancy surfing have a dual purpose; they build up the tension as we wait for the shark to strike and give the camera a chance to lust after its bikini-clad leading lady to a degree that's almost creepy – panning slowly down along her body as she dives under a breaker or lasciviously across her upraised derriere as she paddles out.

As it the case with good horror, waiting for the shark to appear is almost scarier than anything that comes after, made even more so by its inventive and creepy first appearance as a huge, dark shadow taking shape and coming towards her as she catches a wave in slo-mo.

When it gets hold of Nancy and tears her leg to shreds, she desperately claws her way to a nearby rock, panicked and trying to staunch the flow of blood while her attacker circles nearby.

It sets up a movie that's less a man vs beast monster movie than it is a battle of wills, Nancy concocting several schemes and plans to try and outwit or outrun the monster. First the race is on to get to a buoy a few dozens metres away before the high tide swamps her, but when the shark seems to lose its temper in its efforts to reach her it turns into a violent fight – all with the beach only a few hundred metres off.

Both the story and the visuals end up a bit cartoony when the movie reaches its explosive climax, but by then you'll have enjoyed some tense scenes with cool visuals, and expecting any more from a movie about a shark attack is frankly asking too much.

Any movie set in and around the water is a production nightmare, so it also feels picky to mention how bad the continuity is, but when it's bright sunlight in one shot and storm clouds gather in the next or when day turns to night way too fast, it's very hard not to notice.

Lively is very watchable even though she isn't given nearly as much to do as she was in the sublime Age of Adaline (which suited her look and demeanour much better), but she carries you along with her terror and desperation for 90 minutes all by herself ably enough.

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