Stylish and fun, The Shallows deserves its praise as one of the best killer shark films since Jaws. Granted, there have been few notable entries in the sub-genre since Spielberg’s 1975 masterpiece. If you’ve seen the stunning teaser and theatrical trailer that were cut for this film, then you know what you’re in for. Gorgeous cinematography, stellar sound design, and a solid performance from Blake Lively send The Shallows buoying above other shark fare, but inconsistent storytelling and off-kilter action sequences keep it from making bigger waves.
The premise is simple: surfer Nancy (Blake Lively) is stranded on a rock in the middle of an isolated bay while a maneater with a taste for blood circles her. The film stays anchored to this scenario, sometimes getting weirdly inventive with set pieces to keep things interesting — like using a dying whale’s blubbery, bloody wound as a grip for climbing, by example. The trajectory of the story is solid, with excellent time mechanics to build urgency. We know that the rock Nancy clings to will eventually be submerged when high tide rolls in, giving her real reasons to take risks to find a path to shore as opposed to waiting it out.
Jaume Collet-Serra, who helmed two other films I adore: Orphan and Non-stop, has crafted a visceral survival story. Shots of the idyllic Mexican seascape are soaked in beauty and menace. From the time Nancy hits the water to the first encounter with the shark, the tension grows to an unbearable level. The evocative visuals are bolstered by powerful sound design, which uses hard cuts and even the simple sound of lapping water to unease the viewer. The Shallows shows how much can be accomplished with very little dialogue.
Where The Shallows sometimes left me adrift was its back-and-forth between stylized, survival grit and manufactured, commercial action. When Lively’s character is cleverly stitching up her bite wound and befriending an injured seagull, I love her character and want her to overcome the shark. The film’s
technical elements support realism, drawing me closer to her plight. However, when the movie pulls away from realism in favor of spectacle, my engagement weaned. Starting with overlong surfing montages set to pop music and escalating to over-the-top moments with poor visual effects, The Shallows sometimes seems over-produced, which is an unfortunate contrast to the rest of the film’s fresh and sharp feel.
We don’t get theatrical films featuring murderous animals often enough, let alone ones that are as well-executed as this. Ultimately, The Shallows is a killer shark movie that’s pretty damn good. That’s reason alone to dive in, yeah?