The tide is high but I’m holdin’ on / I’m gonna be your number one / I’m not the kind-a girl who gives up just like that, oh no
-Opening Lyrics to “The Tide is High”, Blondie (1980)
In “The Shallows,” Blake Lively takes to the screen as Nancy, a down and out med student in need of some beach R&R in Mexico. But just when she thought it was safe to go into the water, her island paradise turns to an aquatic hell with a shark set on seeing her blood in the water. While this (wo)man vs. nature theme treads familiar territory, “The Shallows” still manages to keep you holding your breath in suspense as Lively struggles to keep her analytical head above water and strokes ahead of the killer shark. **3.25 Cosmic Afros**
The start of “The Shallows” begins as you would expect–in “all fun and games” mode, taking its time to set up a trouble-free paradise. We find blonde and blithe Nancy chatting with Carlos, a local with a heart of gold, as he drives her to a secluded beach. (Carlos is played earnestly by Spanish actor Óscar Jaenada–if you want to see what he can really do with more screen time, check him out alongside Marcia Gay Harden in 2015’s indie “After Words“). Director Jaume Collet-Serra (who, by the way, has directed Liam Neeson in 3 films) gives requisite beach aerials and surfing close-ups. Collet-Serra makes some interesting technical choices that work well (kudos for integrating FaceTime in a way that seemed natural–after all, our phones are as much a part of the narratives of our lives as the people in them) and some that don’t quite hit the mark (lingering shots and cutaways of Lively on the beach skew voyeuristic than wistful). But once the first shark chomp happens, the action flows more than it ebbs. I actually found myself cheering for the shark and Nancy simultaneously–the more the shark did its worst, the more I was looking forward to Nancy strategizing at her best.
“The Shallows” hits that summer popcorn movie sweet spot for me: thrills, chills, and an element of surprise in just under 90 minutes. And what was that surprise, you ask? An ornithic co-star named Sully “Steven” Seagull. Yes, a seagull! Let’s face it: since Tom Hanks starred alongside Wilson in 2000’s “Cast Away”, the bar was set high for “best companion of a marooned lead” (and set high by a volleyball, no less). As soon as Sully the Seagull came into the frame–I knew he was beyond your basic bird. Kudos to animal trainers Katie Brock-Medland and John Medland for their work with Sully in perfecting that wingman chemistry. He’s a natural and I hope his movie career takes flight in a big way!
I have to admit, I really didn’t follow much of the press around the release of “The Shallows.” Actually it wasn’t on my radar until my fellow GSBpodcast co-host MDawg mentioned it in our movie trailer talk segment a few shows ago. Like many moviegoers, I expected this box office weekend would be dominated by “Independence Day: Resurgence” buzz, whether or not it lived up to expectations. I also remember not being particularly impressed by the first “Shallows” trailer I viewed.
It wasn’t until I saw a second trailer where Lively was timing her swim escape like an augmented reality math word problem, that “The Shallows” hooked my interest. There are not enough actioners out there showing women who can–as Matt Damon said with gusto in 2015’s “The Martian”–science the sh*t out of their situation. [Dear Readers, try this exercise at home: Create a Top 10 survival movie list of films featuring a female lead going against the odds using her scientific or tech savvy “The Martian”-style. Oh, and you can only use one movie from the “Alien” franchise. If that list was too easy create, try creating another Top 10 with women of color in the leading role. Ready? OK? GO!]
Nancy is certainly no Ripley–her brief characterizations only touch the potential of how a female lead in this type of action movie can be portrayed, particularly given the film’s buoyant denouement. But given the “surprisingly strong” opening box office of “The Shallows”, bubbling to the surface again is the question if Hollywood will be intentional in supporting more action films featuring female leads with depth of character, and be, you know, less shallow? The tide is nigh!