Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:
I found the highly praised shark movie “The Shallows” to be a tolerable but rather joyless experience. Taken as a genre picture it’s weirdly flat — not exciting and funny like “Jaws,” or empathically harrowing like “Gravity,” or even perversely cruel like “The Birds.” In place of these qualities, which are among the qualities we tend to enjoy in thrillers, director Jaume Collet-Serra substitutes arduousness and a grim corporeality. Like a lot of contemporary genre movies “The Shallows” intends not to delight you, or even to scare you, but to put you through the wringer. Why are so many contemporary thriller and horror-movie directors so literal minded, so uninterested in evoking sensations beyond the physical traumas endured by their characters? My main thought while watching “The Shallows” was, “Boy, being attacked by a shark really sucks.”
As Nancy, the surfer who is held captive on a rock by an angry predator, Blake Lively has an impressive physicality — athleticism and vigor contained within an antiperspirant-model exterior. You want to like her. But Collet-Serra’s direction doesn’t get inside her perceptions or thought processes, a major failing in a survival picture. It’s rare that we understand the action from Nancy’s point of view. Instead we get repeated objective shots intended to emphasize the vastness and power of the ocean. (As nearly all of the action takes place in a small area, an emphasis on tantalizing nearness would have been more effective.) Not only does this decision thwart our identification with Nancy, it helps to defeat the spatial organization that is required for a movie of this sort to be effective. I never felt certain where the screenplay’s principal locales — the rock, the buoy, the shore, the whale carcass — were in relation to one another. And when Nancy eats a crab — alive, so that it wriggles on her lips — the action comes out of nowhere; her hunger isn’t anticipated by the writing or direction.
Perhaps the feeblest device used to animate Nancy is an injured seagull that’s stranded on her rock. Although it’s intended as a mute sounding board, a character for Lively to play against, it only caused me to miss the touchingly humanized volleyball from “Cast Away.” When the seagull solemnly floats away, unwisely echoing a key shot in the Zemeckis film, you may think, “That’s it?” The reference feels unearned. There’s a going-through-the-motions quality to this and other character bits, as though Collet-Serra and his team were biding their time, treading water as it were, between the big computer-assisted shark moments.
Because no reasonable motivation is provided for the shark’s malevolence (perhaps it supports Trump?), and Collet-Sera’s approach is so po-faced, the viewer is left wondering what the big fish represents. (Symbolism is the last refuge of the bored.) Is it the Patriarchy? The male gaze? Nancy’s grief at the loss of her mother? I finally decided that it wasn’t meant as a metaphor; that it was meant, rather, as one of those challenges that contemporary women yearn for and demand that we acknowledge, like a marathon, a divorce, or a doctoral program (it’s made clear that Nancy is a med student). When at the picture’s end Nancy’s gnomish father figuratively pats her on the head, assuring her that her mother would be proud of her (dad’s pride being irrelevant to Nancy’s self-image), the message of the movie becomes obvious. It can be summarized as “overcoming obstacles begets validation.” For many viewers, that sentiment is enough.