This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, August 2016
Shark attack thriller The Shallows exploits our universal fear of being eaten alive on a day at the beach by dangling a tasty piece of female flesh in the path of a great white and silently positing that eternal question: in her position, what would you do?
Blake Lively goes surfing in bikini bottoms and a wetsuit top – (OK, let’s not get up in arms about it because that is what female surfers wear – although I’m not entirely convinced all the body-grazing derrière-cam is purely documentary) – only to be knocked off her board and stranded on a small rock. Injured and alone, Nancy must use her medical student’s wits (of course!) to navigate the hours ahead, otherwise she risks becoming nothing more than the imperilled blonde in some poor surfer’s found footage.
Lively is best known for her role as a socialite in TV’s utterly superficial and entirely engrossing Gossip Girl, but has recently been breaking that mould with grittier roles as “The Girlfriend” in Savages and The Town. It’s good to see her carry a whole film – and she literally carries it, as Robert Redford had to in his own man-at-sea solo show, All is Lost (though there was significantly less tanned skin in his film). Lively may not get to extend her acting range much beyond frightened and exhausted, but her plight is certainly captivating (and to be honest, if you succumb to the inevitable male gaze of the direction and camerawork, she looks sensational).
In a career that includes three solid Liam Neeson actioners that don’t have Taken in the title, director Jaume Collet-Serra never aims for highbrow but he knows his genre, and with airplane thriller Non-Stop in particular he proved he’s accomplished at creating fairly gripping action in a single location. Inexplicably he muddies those waters in The Shallows by flashing up irritating screenshots of Nancy’s cellphone photos and narratively uninspired Skype calls, and drowning us in oonst-oonst music and intermittent slo-mo before a pensive close-up of Lively eating an apple.
But the sharkier moments are nevertheless well-handled, and if your heart isn’t pounding for most of the film, you’re not alive.