THE SHALLOWS (Jaume Collet-Serra)
There’s a great sequence early in the otherwise problematic WORLD WAR Z when Brad Pitt figures out infected people turn to zombies within ten seconds, by counting up from 1 when he sees someone get bit. When he gets some blood on him shortly thereafter, he goes to the ledge of a rooftop and counts to ten, ready to jump off if he starts turning. Once he gets to ten, he realizes he isn’t infected, and continues.
That took me 64 words to say, but in the film it’s all communicated visually, the only dialogue being “one, two, three…” and it takes less than a minute of screen time. Of course, WORLD WAR Z had Christopher McQuarrie and other talented writers to do stuff like that, whereas THE SHALLOWS has Anthony Jaswinski (I bet the crew called him “Jaws-inski”). And unfortunately for Collet-Serra’s film, a similar sequence has Blake Lively looking at her watch to determine how long it will take for a shark to swim from the whale carcass upon which it’s feeding to the rock where Lively is stranded. The watch gets to 32, and the audience knows the situation. But then Jaswinski has Lively say to herself “Okay, 32 seconds to get from the whale to the rock.” Needless dialogue like that makes THE SHALLOWS a little more pedestrian than it needs to be. Not that I expected it to be ALL IS LOST, but I could have used an even more stripped-down narrative.
All that aside, THE SHALLOWS works. It’s quick, dirty, lean, and gorgeous to look at. Collet-Serra embraces digital photography, as he and his fairly regular DP Flavio Labiano use drones, Go-Pros, and underwater camerawork to plunge you into the visceral experience of this girl vs. shark thriller. The CG is a little more troublesome, especially in one laughable surfing shot where Lively’s face is so scotch-taped onto the stunt double that it looks worse than Adobe Photoshop when DCP’d onto the big screen. But Collet-Serra also must have brought along the effects team that created the best ever use of on-screen text messaging for his NON-STOP, because the use of not only texting but cell phone photo-sharing and Skype-calling is similarly impressive.
Thematically, THE SHALLOWS isn’t breaking much ground — it provides a dead-mom backstory and a quitters-never-win character arc that squeaks with age. However, its girl-power overtones (early on, Lively isn’t so sure what’s scarier: the ocean or strange dudes) are refreshing and it avoids any descent into a lame romance plot or something equally condescending. It’s just a 90-minute B-movie, terrifying for shark-o-phobes, and agreeably tense. Enough, at least, to overlook some absurd action in the climax.