By Preston Wilder
It’s a good week for B-movies. Star Trek Beyond is a B-movie too, despite all its bells and whistles – but I’m talking about really small films, the kind that clock in at under 90 minutes and are based around a small, simple concept. Lights Out is actually based on a short, and the way to watch that film is to watch the ingeniously terrifying first 10 minutes – a bigger-budget version of the short in question – then ignore the silly, increasingly literal-minded rest of it (this strategy may involve waiting till it comes to the small screen). The Shallows is an even simpler concept: one girl, one shark, one empty beach. It doesn’t even bother going out to sea, just stays in the shallows.
Director Jaume Collet-Serra has set himself an almost impossible task here. It’s not just that the ingredients are so few, it’s also that the situation is static. Open Water was a similarly spartan aquatic thriller a decade ago – that’s the one where a couple found themselves stranded in the ocean, beset by sharks – but at least that couple could drift, new elements could be added to the mix. Here, on the other hand, Nancy (Blake Lively) can barely even move, once the shark starts to stalk her. She’s literally in the shallows, 200 yards from shore; she can see the beach, could even call out for help – but the beach is empty, and those 200 yards might as well be 200 miles. She’s perched on a rock, which is due to disappear at high tide, and totally trapped. If she tries to swim, the circling shark will get her.
It’s hard to imagine a film like this succeeding. It can’t even contrive false alarms, the mainstay of horror films everywhere. A strange noise can’t turn out to be a cat, or the wind, or whatever; the shark is either there or it isn’t (it does try using dolphins as a false alarm, and seems unconvincing). Collet-Serra, however, is rapidly making a name for himself as a canny specialist turning dross into eye-catching glitter, and sometimes gold. He’s made Orphan, a perverse and disturbing evil-child horror, then three superior films with Liam Neeson, the splendidly Hitchcockian Unknown then Non-Stop and Run All Night; even the Paris Hilton-featuring House of Wax was better than it had to be.
His secret may perhaps lie in balance, and judicious intensity. He’s stylish, but doesn’t make a fetish of style; he’s not bombastic, like (say) Zack Snyder of Batman v. Superman fame – yet his actors are encouraged to turn up the heat when it comes to emotion, as if playing drama. The memory of Neeson and Ed Harris facing off in a restaurant in Run All Night will remain long after that film’s plot has been forgotten – and Blake Lively dragging her gashed leg onto the rock with an anguished scream is in the same ballpark, though admittedly the character’s back-story (med-school dropout, traumatised by the death of her mother) isn’t very interesting here.
The Shallows is full of unexpectedly striking images: a minefield of luminescent jellyfish, a ship in the distance framed against a dark and stormy sky (it looks like a ghost ship, and behaves that way too), even the shark’s first appearance, emerging through the back of a cresting wave. Yet the film doesn’t feel overpoweringly slick; it feels more like a bad dream, a texture augmented by the stark geography of the setting. Nancy’s world is bounded by the beach, the rock, a buoy, a whale carcass, and an island that looks like a pregnant woman. Her sole companion is a seagull, playfully christened Steven Seagull. Things seem to happen at one remove. An entire sequence – when two fellow surfers come back in the morning – could quite plausibly have been a dream, and maybe it is.
You have to make allowances for this movie. The script isn’t great, rife with dodgy detail. Why does the shark stick around after feeding? Why does Nancy’s leg seemingly stop hurting in the second half? Why make such a big deal about high tide when the rock never seems to go under? It’s a rickety film, made (I suspect) by Collet-Serra as a kind of cinematic challenge rather than because he liked the story. Yet there’s one bit where Nancy’s reaching out for an underwater camera, and can’t quite grab it – the camera keeps slipping away in the water, and time’s running out, and the shark’s getting closer – and I suddenly realised I was on the edge of my seat, even though (a) I knew she’d almost certainly manage to grab the camera eventually, and (b) I couldn’t see what possible use she’d have for an underwater camera anyway. Bottom line? It’s a good week for B-movies.
DIRECTED BY Jaume Collet-Serra
STARRING Blake Lively, Oscar Jaenada
US 2016 86 mins.