It’s probably in the DNA of shark movies to be hyperbolic — even the legendary Jaws made its great white 25 feet long — but The Shallows endows its toothy antagonist with powers well beyond mere mortal sharks. This motherfucker leaps into the air to take down a surfer in mid-surf; it chomps fearlessly into whale hide, rocks, and finally metal; it leaps into the air again to escape the fiery surface of the ocean. What it doesn’t do is swim around lackadaisically, mostly just farting around until it occasionally bites something, which I imagine is what real sharks do. No, this shark isn’t just a human-killer (making it an anomaly in the world of sharks), it’s a serial human-killer, taking out two men within minutes of each other (making it idiotic in the world of narrative). This shark doesn’t just kill to feed; it kills because, I dunno, it’s an asshole.
The shark is trying to kill Blake Lively. Blake Lively is just trying to make it home alive and prove she can carry a movie almost literally by herself, as her husband Ryan Reynolds did in Buried. But whether Lively can anchor minimalist suspense is a question the movie doesn’t allow itself to answer, because it weighs her down with backstory. And the backstory — her character mourns the death of her mom, which has made her question whether she should continue working on her med degree — doesn’t really play to Lively’s strengths. The backstory is only there to turn the movie into a Chicken Soup for the Soul fable about fighting for life. But would we not feel the heroine’s life was worth fighting for without all the special pleading?
Anyway, Blake is out surfing off the same beach her dead mom used to frequent, and the aforementioned shark, defending its turf (a decomposing whale carcass), bites her. She makes it to a bit of rock, accompanied by a blood-streaked seagull. Using her med-school know-how (leading us to think that if she were, say, a marketing major or something instead, she’d just bleed out 35 minutes into the movie, the end), she takes her earrings and, in tight, nauseating close-ups, “stitches” her wound closed. Is this something doctors can do to themselves without anesthesia? I was reminded of the notorious Stephen King short story “Survivor Type,” in which a doctor marooned on an island removes and eats parts of himself to live another day.
The Shallows also reminded me of a similar and vastly superior nature thriller, Open Water, which had the dark wit to let one of its yuppie protagonists howl into the uncaring void, “We paid to do this!” The new movie, though, has no wit, dark or otherwise; it’s too sappy to be lean and mean. As a fable of endurance, it lacks the visceral tension and based-on-a-true-story veneer of authenticity of 127 Hours. We know Blake Lively will survive as soon as we see her talking to her kid sister and dad via videochat. Indeed, we may easily imagine the heroine going on to a lucrative career giving feel-good talks about how she conquered her demons (grief, nihilism, shark), and you can too for the low introductory price of $49.95.
The backdrop for the sad blond white woman to have her crisis is a never-named beach somewhere in Mexico. Blake encounters five Mexicans. One is an amiable guy who gives her a ride to the beach and refuses payment. Two are surfers who condescend to her. One is a drunk fatso who steals her phone and backpack, and is about to go steal her surfboard when the shark comes calling. And one is a boy, the amiable guy’s son I guess, who happens to find the GoPro helmet camera Blake records her goodbyes on as a sort of message in a bottle. The movie is set in Mexico, I guess, so that Blake is alone among people who can only speak limited English or can’t understand her limited Spanish. Certain orange-skinned pundits and their followers might catch a matinee of The Shallows and conclude that what’s needed to protect great American med students from loser Mexican sharks is a wall — an underwater wall — and the sharks will pay for it, and let me tell you, it will be terrific.