When watching The Shallows, it becomes readily apparent that its simple title holds within it layers of nuance that must be considered. The first and most obvious layer is that of the setting, which takes place near entirely within the shallow waters of a secluded Mexican beach. So far, so apt. The next most obvious interpretation is one of character; the cast of characters that do inhabit the sparsely populated film are the kinds of characters that exist best with one sentence descriptions.
Blake Lively, for instance, plays “Surfing White Girl Having An Existential Crisis.” We’re told her name is actually Nancy, but that hardly seems relevant since her job mostly consists of swimming around as her crisis moves from existential to actual when her idyllic jaunt is disrupted by a killer shark. Then there’s Oscar Jaenada’s “Hot Bodied Mexican Guy,” who exists for no real reason except to add tiny bits of exposition and give the illusion of hope to our Surfing White Girl heroine.
Which brings me to the final level of interpretation that can be gleamed from the film’s title, one that pertains to the film itself. It might be tempting to call it “simple” except that belies that true nature of the film, which is about as deep as a wading pool and half as necessary. Insofar as the killer shark genre is a thing that actually it exists, there’s little, at this point, that can actually be done within the framework. It’s been perfected once (Jaws), turned on its head (Open Water), and debased into comedic absurdity (Deep Blue Sea, Sharknado, every Jaws sequel, any other movie I can’t be bothered to remember).
I can see scant reason for this movie to exist, but since when has the lack of raison d’être ever been an impediment for moviemaking? Or, for that matter, to enjoyment? As pointless an exercise as The Shallows might be, it’s not without that oft unconsidered element important to films and filmmaking, fun. While there is little to see or do in The Shallows, it’s hard to discount the film entirely due to the presence of that key element, and with it the film actually manages to tell a competent and at times effective little tale.
The success of this aspect rests solely on the shoulders of Lively, who manages to bring her shallow character to life convincingly enough that you actually care about her and her stranded-on-an-errant-rock plight. Though clearly not an awards worthy performance, the actress is able to capture the fear and helplessness inherent in her role’s situation without swimming too far into cringe worthy territory. The near lack of a cast provides a kind of intimacy to the situation that allows for moments of visceral terror to creep through the otherwise silly façade.
That’s all provided you can overlook some of the more ridiculous notions, which neither begin nor end with an unconvincing CGI shark. You have to be willing to shrug off the notion that Surfing White Girl would still have the strength to swim after existing for 36 or so hours on a rock, subject to both heat and cold, without food or water, while bleeding profusely from her leg after a shark bite. You have to decide to ignore the ridiculous image of Lively trying carefully to balance on the half-eaten body of the dead whale that first attracted the killer shark to her secluded beach, and whose blubber at one point causes the ocean to catch fire. And you most certainly have to be willing to accept that Surfing White Girl is very nearly upstaged by the closest thing she gets to a co-star, a bird named Steven Seagull.
Yes, you read that right. A bird with a dislocated wing very nearly becomes the most compelling character in a movie that, at its core, is about a shark who just wants to eat a whale in peace. And his name is Steven Seagull, which, goddammit, is kind of awesome. While not quite on the level of Black Phillip as best bestial non-character of the year, Steven Seagull somehow becomes an emotionally important core in Surfing White Girl’s struggle to defeat the killer shark.
Which isn’t that surprising when you’re dealing with a film as lacking in depth or necessity as The Shallows is. It’s the kind of movie that you watch when you’ve got nothing else going on, and maybe even kind of enjoy while doing so, even if you forget about it almost immediately after it ends. I won’t go so far as to claim that a film like that has merit, but it knows its job and it gets it done without anything extemporaneous bogging it down, and that, in itself, is something that almost resembles merit. For what it is, The Shallows is just good enough to stare at for 87 minutes, and if that’s all you’re looking for then it’s more or less perfect.
The Shallows is now playing in theaters everywhere.