We’ve seen the classic shark-attack movie Jaws, in which an entire shore town has an inordinate amount of trouble killing one man-eating beast. We’ve seen Deep Blue Sea, in which intelligent and genetically-modified sharks break free of their captors and start striking back. Now we have The Shallows, a refreshing suspense flick that pits scrappy surfer and med student Nancy (Blake Lively) against one terrifying and relentless shark.
Let’s start with the obvious so we can get it out of the way. Yes, Blake Lively is smoking hot. Yes, she looks amazing, especially since this movie was made only eight months after she gave birth to a child. Yes, the film spends ample time reminding you of this. Moving on.
Lively’s character Nancy plays a (former) medical student and surf enthusiast who sets out to find a secluded Mexican beach to which her now deceased mother used to go. Starting off, she does well as the cute American girl who tries, but struggles to beef up on her Spanish. However, her spunk and resourcefulness are soon forced to come to light as she goes head-to-head with an over-sized sea-dwelling monster.
The Shallows executes certain techniques very well, such as a preponderance of suspense as opposed to one-after-another jump-scares. While it does have its fair share of those (tough be be avoided with this type of fare), there are plenty of moments when the camera dips below the water along with a foot or a hand, and nothing happens to either appendage. Your heart beats faster waiting for the scare that doesn’t come.
The sinister tone of this movie is driven home by the cinematography, which offers many shots of Nancy from afar, or from high above, to show just how alone and vulnerable she is in this situation. Nailing that feeling of isolation is important here, and the movie accomplishes this in spades. Couple that with an eerie musical score and you feel a creeping dread that does not cease for much of the film. Beyond that, the whole aura of the movie is sinister and foreboding, as the few other characters she meets – including the local guide that drives her to destination and a couple of chuckling dudes that surf with her for a bit – flatly refuse to tell her the name of the beach, as if it is kept mostly a secret for a reason. When she asks the guide a final time what the place is called, before walking away, he shoots her a momentary look of disapproval and in Spanish simply says “Careful.” This makes you believe that there’s more at play here – that the locals know exactly what happens at this beach and still let hapless visitors take their chances with death just to catch a few tasty waves.
For me, movies are an escape, and when it comes to most of them, “suspension of disbelief” is the order of the day. However, if we want to get picky here, the shark’s hard-on for Nancy (and it has nothing to do with her looks) is entirely removed from reality and eventually becomes annoying. Everybody loves Shark Week when it airs on TV every summer, and if you’ve seen enough of it, you know that shark attacks on humans are actually incredibly rare. Science tells us that with few exceptions, sharks will only make a meal out of a human if they feel particularly endangered or provoked by their presence. Alas, we’re not here for science or fact. We’re here for a badass great white that relentlessly encircles and hunts one person sitting on a rock for the better part of 90 minutes of screen time (which in the movie’s time is about a couple of days).
While every film generally needs some sort of backstory, the one here that involves Nancy’s dead mother only really serves the plot through the mention that it was her, who while having lost her battle with cancer, taught Nancy “how to fight.” What we learn of Nancy’s time as a med student also helps explain how with nothing more than her earrings and a necklace, she’s able to suture a massive laceration on her leg left when the shark got a good chomp in there. There’s even a cute gag where she resets the dislocated wing of a bird that hangs out on the rock with her, and narrates the procedure to it as she would to an actual human patient.
The suspense offered by The Shallows is palpable, but the film also keeps the viewer grounded with timed reminders of incoming and outgoing tides (which tell us when the rock upon which our heroine is resting will be swallowed up by the sea, making her as good as fish food), as well as of Nancy’s uncanny ingenuity and mere will to survive as she plans her escape. The ending of the film is more than fairly predictable (I probably don’t have to tell you who wins the day), but it’s the ride that makes it all worth it. Also, I love a movie that is no longer than it has to be, because even here some people might get bored with extended shots of Nancy laying on a rock, waiting to die as dehydration and gangrene set in. However, at just 86 minutes, The Shallows is a short cinematic commitment, especially for the summer, as the season’s usual blockbusters tend to run in excess of two-and-a-half hours.
There are no Academy Awards on the horizon for The Shallows is a tense and exciting oceanic romp that plays well as long as you can forget that in real life, a shark would not be so hellbent on stalking one human for days on end when it has a sea full of food to be had. Predictable, unrealistic, and at times, cheesy, but what it does right, it does very right. It’s worth a watch, and better on the big screen.