I was not alive to experience the impact “Jaws” had when it came out, but I am certainly aware of its influence and have seen it many times. So, going into The Shallows, I kept hearing from various outlets that it was “just like ‘Jaws’” or “the best shark movie since ‘Jaws’.” Granted, that isn’t exactly the highest of honors when its strongest modern competition is “Sharknado,” but I went in regardless with an open mind and can definitively confirm that The Shallows IS just like “Jaws” . . . in the sense that there is indeed a killer shark in the movie. Otherwise, it feels like a radically different film, but in a mostly good way.
While “Jaws” centered on its many human characters, The Shallows really only centers on one, a Texan surfer (yes, those exist) named Nancy (Blake Lively, “Green Lantern”). Lamenting the recent death of her mother, Nancy travels to a “secret” beach off the coast of Mexico that’s of sentimental value to her. There, she enjoys sun, sand, waves, hot surfer dudes, a gross whale carcass, and an unexpected attack from a Great White. Now with a severely wounded leg and stranded 200 yards away from the shoreline, Nancy has to gather her wits and maneuver her way back to shore before succumbing to both her current injury and the many injuries she proceeds to suffer as the film progresses.
The film does a great job of disarming the viewer in the first third. Through some clever pacing, edits, and shot composition, you’re arrested by the majesty of the beach itself enough to divert your attention away from the shark attack you came to see. Like the first ten minutes of “Blackfish” made you want to work at SeaWorld, the first twenty of The Shallows makes you want to go to the beach. Obviously, there are a few underwater POV shots shoehorned in to forebode the incoming danger, but only after the movie takes a much-welcomed breath does it actually get going. Thankfully, it keeps going and never lags.
The more I see of Blake Lively, the more I like her. I thought she was excellent in “The Town” and I loved her last year in “The Age of Adaline,” but this time she commands the screen. She’s alone for the majority of the movie and has to perform against visual effects, which certainly isn’t easy. The role also appears physically demanding, as Lively doesn’t spend the film’s running time just waiting on a rock. It’s nowhere near as abrasive as what DiCaprio did in “The Revenant,” but Lively’s having to both surf convincingly and move from point to point quickly while fighting currents. There are sequences where additional stunt work was clearly involved, but she’s able to pull it off. Unfortunately, the extent of her character’s dimension is mostly churned out in a single expository phone call scene with her family. It gives an explanation as to how Nancy is able to temporarily mend her wounds, but overall, it felt crammed in when it didn’t necessarily need to be.
If you have a fear of sharks, The Shallows will not disappoint you. Director Jaume Collet-Serra (“Orphan”) knows what to show and what to hide, creating some effectively scary scenes. The film is also surprisingly gruesome for a PG-13, and that isn’t solely in reference to the characters who die in the first half. Nancy herself endures a lot of pain in this movie outside of the shark attack. This includes trauma from coral reefs, jellyfish, rocky surfaces, and even a seagull at one point. The film evenly utilizes both practical and computer-generated effects, but mostly succeeds when using practical. When underwater, the shark looks fantastic, but the effects become obvious when it comes above water, especially as the third act begins to wrap up. There’s even a scene with a school of dolphins leaping out of the water that, quite frankly, looks terrible.
Despite those moments, The Shallows still manages to reel in honest tension. It never rises above the level of a B-movie, but it’s certainly a superior effort from Collet-Serra, who’s proving himself as one of my favorite genre directors working today. It’s sure to land on a few people’s Top 10 Shark Movies list (I’d champion it on mine if I make one), and not having seen “Open Water,” I’d dare say that it probably is the best shark movie since “Jaws” . . .
Well, maybe third behind “Sharktopus,” but that’s a masterpiece for a whole different reason.