No one will ever make a movie that rivals Jaws as the quintessential shark attack movie, as evidenced by Jaws 2-4. Sharknado, to its lunk-headed credit, never tries to. Yet, as the consistent ratings for Discovery Channel’s “Shark Week” bear witness to, people are endlessly fascinated by the predators of the deep. Another shark-as-unstoppable-terminator flick was bound to happen.
What no one could have expected was The Shallows, an adept and well-executed thriller that features gorgeous cinematography and locations alongside some truly effective attack moments. The story is compact, as is the 87 minute running time, which in the era of epic bloat and three-hours-plus slogs is appreciated. A young woman, still mourning the death of her mother, seeks out a secluded waterway off of Mexico where mom once spent a treasured vacation of sun and surf. She was to go with a friend, but upon learning that the friend is staying behind for a post-drunken hookup, she ventures off alone. This particular body of water is never named and when she enquires, her investigations are rebuffed.
All is well and tranquil after an afternoon of surfing until the dead whale is spotted. More than a harbinger of bad things to come, the whale is something’s prize, and that something will protect its watery territory to the expected death. Our lead character learns early on with mostly off-screen bloodletting. The rest of the story is a fight for survival as the lead is stranded on a rock in the middle of the titular shallows, losing feeling in the leg that was bitten, losing the rock to the rising tide, and running out of time before the human condition fails.
To the picky, there are lots of horror movie tropes at play including the helpful stranger at the start who — in broken English — will lay out verbally all the perils the heroine will encounter in the next hour. But Jaws director Steven Spielberg knew that once you had the audience wound up super-tight with tension they will buy into even some of the more ludicrous plot twists. Shallows director Jaume Collet-Serra (Orphan, the House of Wax remake) does the same, and once you are figuratively in over your head in the story, most of these logic and physics lapses can be easily forgiven. There’s even a nifty homage to that first shark attack movie toward the end, but it doesn’t go nearly as well this time.
Much credit for the success of the film goes to its star Blake Lively. Her roles have tended to uniformly be “pretty and prone to making really bad life choices.” In The Shallows, her character starts out also as pretty and prone to making really bad life choices (as in, your friend who was coming with you to the mystery destination has bailed. Turn back around and get a damn margarita). That Lively is able to not only overcome one of those oft-derided Scream moments, but keep the audience engaged and rooting for her — she is really the only character in this entire film, after all — says a lot about her abilities.
The special effects are judicious about when to be shocking and when to merely be menacing. Collet-Serra knows that you only need one really visceral shot up front to sell the potential carnage, and the rest is merely the wide-open, unseen dread and isolation. Apart from the first attack on Lively’s character Nancy, there is one other shocking somewhat gross-out moment. The rest is about all you need to see, and not much more. We see people being snatched up from nowhere, and the great thing about the film’s environs is that it is generally all wide-angle, wide open, bright and sunny…everything every other horror movie is not.
The scenery is also breathtakingly beautiful, with calm beaches, clear blue water, and tropical greenery framing what would eventually become a death arena. In other words, apart from the, you know, getting eaten alive by a vicious predator part, it looks like a place you would want to visit.
Most people will be satisfied by seeing this film only once. Once you know the outcomes, the big tricks are done and not repeatable. Still, for a tension-filled popcorn thriller, The Shallows has much more going for it than one would ever expect.