For four films in a row now, Jaume Collet-Serra has placed modern image-capturing devices—a security feed in Unknown, smartphone cameras in Non-Stop and Run All Night, and now a GoPro in The Shallows—into his plots as carriers of empirical evidence that in some way click the narratives into place. It’s an auteurist quirk that’s getting increasingly difficult to write off as merely a techie fetish or an act of pandering to his touch-screen-savvy audience, especially since the wildly popular matchbox-sized HD machine at the heart of The Shallows permits Blake Lively’s embattled surfer to record a soulful message to geographically distant loved ones that might otherwise have gone unexpressed. The camera also literally acts as the savior of the story, floating into her vicinity just when it seems all hope is lost.
A GoPro as the only tonic against the colossal indifference and even outright hostility of nature is the most affirmative product placement the company could ever hope for, and in Collet-Serra’s hands, it makes for crackling entertainment. This survivalist yarn returns the director to the expressionism of Unknown—significantly, a mode of aesthetic exertion that seeks to overrule the laws of physics and optics—in the context of a one-woman-against-all thriller. The valiant woman in question is Nancy (Lively), a surfer babe whose consummate features are captured in slow motion by Collet-Serra’s camera in the early scenes, a tip-off that this is the last time we’ll see her in untarnished form. Savoring her alone time in paradise, Nancy hurriedly dunks herself in the turquoise water, and the ensuing sequence dazzles for its virtuosic speed-ramping, robust sound effects, and orienting aerial views, all of which clarify the sheer force of the ocean and Nancy’s superb athleticism.
Despite the insistence to the contrary from a pair of cocky locals, there’s a shark in these coastal Mexican waters, and naturally it gets a good nip at our heroine—though not quite when we expect it to, thanks to Collet-Serra’s shrewd building and defusing of tension. A floating fungus-covered whale with a gashed torso is Nancy’s first safe haven, but when the great white catches on to that, she’s forced to freestyle over to a rocky bulge jutting out from the water’s surface due to the low tide, where she’ll stay for the majority of the film. The stripped-down scenario involves a tricky physical predicament, especially under Nancy’s rapidly worsening condition: At various points, her survival necessitates that she make decisive linear moves while the shark, and Collet-Serra’s dexterous camera, performs pirouettes around her.
Before The Shallows morphs into an aspirational saga about conquering all odds with a little elbow grease, Anthony Jaswinski’s screenplay infuses an absurdist, Sisyphean quality into Nancy’s dilemma. Amusingly, the only witness to her shark attack is a crippled seagull, who becomes her deadpan companion therein and whose squawking is often timed to suggest schadenfreude. Next, a rare beach dweller and would-be rescuer actually turns out to be a drunken scoundrel more concerned with Nancy’s stray possessions than her well-being. Closer to sadistic exploitation than Collet-Serra’s ever come, The Shallows only ever disappoints by not going all the way with its pessimistic gamesmanship (it ends on a groaner of an epilogue that feels like it was hastily helmed by a production assistant).
What makes the film churn so forcefully for so long, however, is Collet-Serra’s visual acrobatics, which seem almost to flare up in synchronicity with his heroine’s spikes in energy and cunning. When Nancy’s first attacked, for instance, the scene is covered in one slow-motion underwater shot in which the frame gradually fills with the red of Nancy’s spilling blood, seamlessly coinciding with her soundless pang of agony. Later, when she decides to cross a field of jellyfish to deter her predator, the glowing specimens impart a vibrancy that’s gleefully unreal. This all comes to a logical conclusion in the closing credit sequence, where Collet-Serra treats the ocean’s surface, viewed from above, like a bath of swirling tie-dye. More than that of a babe surmounting a hungry shark, the real story of a conquering here is between the director and his chosen setting. Thank Collet-Serra’s state-of-the-art camera, as it’s both his weapon and his trusty sidekick.