The Shallows: Surviving the sharks

I can’t swim and am honestly indifferent to large water bodies. However, The Shallows’ sweeping shots of the clear ocean often border on the hypnotic; beckoning, even pleading with the viewer to have a dip. It’s no surprise then that Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra uses this tempting footage to set up the calm before the storm in his shark-attack film.

The Shallows is a one-woman film about a girl overcoming an attack by a great white shark. Nancy Adams (Blake Lively) is still reeling from her mother’s death from cancer. She remembers her determination and fighting spirit. And in a bit to reconnect with her, the medical school dropout attempts to explore a secret beach in Mexico (one that no one will reveal the name of).

Collet-Serra does a spectacular job in evoking the thrills of surfing, making the audience gaze in wonder at the beautiful waves and the agility of surfers. In one brief second, the fascination wears off when Lively’s face is superimposed on pro surfer Isabella Nichol’s mug to capture our protagonist’s skill. But it’s easy to move on. Collet-Serra, who has previously directed the eerie Orphan, knows exactly how to rile his audience. For instance, the shot where we are shown Nancy’s belongings on the shore, far away from her in the sea. The clever camera, panning back and forth, keeps us steadily guessing whether Nancy is going to get robbed.

When Nancy does get attacked, the great white does significant damage to her leg. The same waters which appeared vast, endless and infinite, are now claustrophobic. It’s gasp-inducing, but the real cringes kick in when the medicine-proficient protagonist attempts to stem the profuse bleeding. The last time my eyes narrowed so much, James Franco was cutting his own arm off in 127 hours.

Lively’s performance is wonderful as a friendly white tourist in Mexico in the beginning, eventually moving to bliss at finding the prophetic beach. But her real acting chops kick in during those close-up shots where she’s falling into the shark-infested waters and fears for her life. It’s adorable when Nancy befriends an injured seagull who she cheekily names ‘Steven’ on the rocks she’s trapped on, reminiscent of Castaway’s Wilson. And here too, Collet-Serra’s does well: the audience is prodded into fearing that Nancy will tear into Steven when she’s hungry enough or worse, if he becomes shark chow (he is bleeding, after all).

For its part, The Shallows’ antagonist is an efficient CGI-created shark, not scary by itself but, like any horror film, what it’s capable of. In this case, its ability to rip a human in half, which it does in one gory instance. But the film is not just about a shark attack, it’s about fighting till the end no matter what and — clichéd as it sounds — overcoming the odds.

If only real life was like survival films, we’d all end up safe in the end.

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