I think the initial entertainment that stems from watching a survival thriller film is in seeing how the screenwriter keeps the narrative unpredictable in a way that also keeps the story tense. By keeping the story unpredictable and therefore tense, I believe that the audience will have a continued investment with the characters onscreen, consequently keeping viewers on their edge of their seats in suspense. In conclusion, I see a survival thriller’s strongest asset being its screenplay, because the majority of the audience’s entertainment lies in the strength of the story.
Well, what about the other aspects of the film, such as its camerawork? In the Foreword to the 2004 Edition of What is Cinema Vol.2, Dudley Andrews notes Andre Bazin’s preference for the “subject matter” over the “properties of the medium.” Andrews writes, “Bazin countered that the subject matter, rather than the properties of the medium, should dictate the style of the film (xv).” In essence, what Bazin means is that the film’s script plays a more important in how the film should be done than the techniques a director can employ with the camera does.
While I have some issues with Bazin’s argument—which I won’t go too into due to the focus of this piece—I’ll counter Bazin by arguing that if a film’s subject matter dictates the style, what happens when that subject matter—the screenplay—is weak? I argue that what happens from there is that the film then relies on the properties of the medium. In short, its editing, use of angles, and so on. But if the use of techniques inherent to the camera are downplayed so that they’re nonexistent, and the film’s script lacks a strong story, we are then left with a mediocre film. I don’t believe that an impressive use of cinematic techniques will necessarily make a film good, but I do believe it plays an important role in whether or not a film is good, and it could perhaps make a bad film otherwise recommendable.
Such isn’t the case in Jaume Collet-Serra’s latest film, The Shallows (2015). Serra may begin the film with a story that is suspenseful while also utilizing interesting camera techniques but as the film continued, I felt myself becoming bored. In a story such as this one, we know the protagonist is not going to die, because it will either abruptly end the film or cheapen the experience. I don’t see the protagonist not dying as a fault however. I think the problem with The Shallows arises not from how predictable the story is—once again, we know the protagonist will survive, because at its core, these survival films are stories of triumph—but from the predictability and tiresome aspect in how the story plays out.
I find the script and consequently the story to be rather weak. My own distaste for the film is then compounded by Serra’s lack in utilizing the properties of the film to the extent that he did when the film started.
The story is about Nancy Adams (Blake Lively), a med-school dropout, who goes to a remote beach in Mexico to surf. It’s not just any beach—it’s “mom’s beach,” a legendary hidden locale where Nancy’s mother caught the best waves of her life while pregnant with Nancy.
While surfing, she befriends two other men who are also surfing, and a small portion of the beginning of the film is dedicated to the trio’s surfing tricks and styles. This is the part of the film that I found most enjoyable. Serra employs a number of techniques with his camera here that blends the coolness of surfing with the artistry of cinema resulting in a fun, stylish montage of the sport. The camera ducks down into the water, breaks through waves; body movement is slowed down and sped up to the tune of booming pop music which accentuates the action, keeping the scene extremely slick.
Eventually the two men go home and Adams is left to surf alone. We know what’s going to happen soon and Serra has been keeping the atmosphere tense by using underwater POV shots to give the appearance of the shark looming close. When the attack does happen, Adams is injured but is quick on her feet; using her necklace and tearing her wetsuit, she makes a makeshift bandage for her bleeding leg, conveniently stripping her down to a very skimpy swimsuit for the rest of the film’s duration.
Before the shark is able to attack her again, Adams is able to make it to a small rock formation that’s only slightly jutting out of the water during high tide. Obviously, the rest of the film is about Adams employing unconventional methods in battling the shark and attempting to make it back to the shore, a mere yet fatal 200 yards away.
While the shark is imposing before it’s seen, once it makes itself visible, for me, the tense atmosphere is lost. This isn’t because of poor visuals relating to the shark—although the animal itself is rather poor looking so it is a factor in the what the film loses—but more so because the unknown is scarier than what’s there. Of course, everyone knows that keeping the monster hidden is a key factor in certain horror films as seen in Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975) and Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), two films which kept audiences fearful by never quite revealing their monstrosities.
As I discussed earlier when quoting Bazin, because the subject matter isn’t plotted out well, the enjoyment of the film will rely on the properties of the medium. But the properties of the medium aren’t really used here. The beginning of the film may have offered underwater shots which were chilling, but that creative use of the camera is gone in the actual shark attacks.
I also think there’s problem with the narrative of the film having very little wiggle room. Stretched across a feature length film, Adams is marooned on the rock and must battle the shark, so there’s only so much that can be done and Anthony Jaswinksi who penned the script, doesn’t do that so much. The shark attacks, Adams barely dodges, and is then back on the rock or later on, the buoy. After the first attack, the film has mostly dealt out all the cards that are meant to be fearful.
There is an introspective character arc surrounding Adams and her relation to her dead mother as well as living father which seemingly give the film a bit more depth (pun unintended) but instead come across as cheap and convenient. Despite having so little to work with, however, Lively as Adams delivers a nuanced performance of bravery, determination, panic, and at times, even light humor.
Initially The Shallows offers a fun B-movie premise backed by a stylish use of photography that keep the film afloat but things go awry. Lively may deliver a great performance, but ultimately she and the film are hampered down by a narrow script and a dull usage of cinematic techniques.