The Shallows

By Tim McEown

Mailed on June 30, 2016

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Dear Lord Howe Island

Dear Lord,

My colleague Di and I disagree a fair bit. What we most certainly do not disagree on is that locations are not characters.

But addressing you directly is unavoidable. The Shallows leans all over your preternatural beauty, especially your pristine water—a shade of aching blue green that I have heretofore never experienced. In fact, the first half of the film is so overwhelmingly pretty, so well composed, so unearthly that I kind of resented the fact that it slowly morphed into a fairly tense one hander, starring an affable and quietly believable Blake Lively.

There were problems to be sure. Lively is a surfer who has managed to find an isolated beach that, surprise, surprise also has a personal significance. Too much of The Shallows was obvious in its construction and that kind of transparency—seeing the metaphorical framework—always undercuts the audience’s ability to suspend disbelief. The performances, mostly Lively, as well as a few smaller roles (mostly sharkbait) were uniformly good. Naturalistic and unassuming they were a useful counterpoint to the obvious plot mechanics. The CG was abominable, as both the shark, and the earlier surfing scenes where Lively’s face was badly grafted onto someone else’s body, conspired to undermine what was otherwise a visually compelling film.

There were moments of genuine humor, tension, occasional pathos and a couple of really clever set pieces—not to mention a setting that was constantly beautiful, whether it was noon or midnight. It would be supremely difficult to find a bad shot given how perfect you look.

This was a frustrating experience in some ways because The Shallows was so close to being an excellent genre film. Jaume Collet-Serra, who’s directing credits include Non-Stop and The Orphan, compensates for his lack of subtly with a technical competence, and there is real power in some of his visual flourishes. But it is the writing that really drags The Shallows down, mostly by telegraphing every narrative beat.

And for every good moment there was something that managed to break the mood almost immediately. The best example of this is a recurring non-human character that was used very effectively until the film makers (and I have barely managed to avoid this till now) jumped the shark. Then the whole audience investment in what was a surprisingly engaging subplot was completely squandered. Too often The Shallows zigged when it should have zagged, and more than anything else it was these poor choices that dragged the film down in the morass of countless other B grade thrillers.

But I will never forget your compelling presence and eye watering beauty, Lord Howe Island, and while you aren’t in the cast list, I tend to think if I remember anything about The Shallows six weeks from now, it will be you and only you.



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