Shark movies have a difficult time getting noticed because they’re all inevitable going to be compared to Jaws, and rightfully so, in this niche genre Jaws isn’t just top of the pile, it’s wearing a crown made of shark teeth and sitting on a throne of bones. There have been a few that have made their mark, Deep Blue Sea for embracing the silliness of its own concept and the Sharknado franchise for just being plain silly. The Shallows might not be the next great shark movie, but for what it is, it’s one of the better low-key thrillers we’ve had for a while and a reminder of why people have been scared to go in the water for over 40 years.
Set almost entirely on this obscure beach somewhere in Mexico, the film finds Nancy Adams (Blake Lively), a medical student escaping for a little while to find a beach that her late mother found when she was pregnant with Nancy and surf the waves like she did all those years ago. The beach proves just as beautiful as she was led to believe, if not more so, and she finds a sense of serenity that has been lost in her life for a while.
However things don’t go so smoothly, while out on a final surf run Nancy comes across the carcass of a whale, and it turns out that the whale is a meal for a Great White Shark. Having crossed into its feeding territory, the shark attacks Nancy, giving her a severe bite on her leg and nearly drowning her, Nancy’s only escape is a small patch of rocks that make up a tiny island in the middle of the ocean with only a bird named Steven Seagull for company. As the hours tick away and Nancy’s safety of low tide slowly disappears, she begins to look for a way to survive before either the shark gets her, or blood loss does.
This is a pure and simple survival story, the first 20 or so minutes set up who Nancy is, why she’s on this beach and what she does in her normal life which leaves the remaining hour to her survival. It’s a movie that doesn’t do anything new with its concept but it’s execution works to bring Nancy’s story to the forefront and ramp up the tension with each new obstacle she has to face against.
While there are a couple other faces in the film including Nancy’s father and sister (Brett Cullen and Sedona Legge), a couple of fellow surfers (Angelo José Lozano Corzo and José Manuel Trujillo Salas) and Steven Seagull (himself), the whole film belonged to Blake Lively as Nancy. Taking cues from her husband’s own one-man-show Buried, Lively presents us with a very real, very relatable main character who manages to carry the film through her intelligence and terror.
Those 20 minutes at the start aren’t just to lead into the shark attack, they actually spend a good deal of time setting up Nancy as a character, she’s a medical student who’s having self-doubt issues following her mother’s death from cancer, fearing that if she couldn’t save her mum who can she save. Her arrival to Mexico isn’t just a vacation, it’s an escape from responsibilities, from life basically, a chance to allow her to rethink where she’s going and if she wants to keep going there. There’s also little things like how she doesn’t speak the language, how her travelling companion is nursing a hangover so couldn’t come with her and how neither of them know the name of the beach so she has no idea how to find Nancy even if she was fine. It’s small stuff but necessary to make the rest of the film work.
Once Lively finds herself on the rock she takes on a whole new ballgame and she’s pretty great in the role, her actions feel smart, using her medical knowledge to handle her wounds being the biggest contribution to her survival, at the same time though she makes some rash decision in the name of survival that don’t play out as expected but you can absolutely understand why she made those choices. Her reactions are genuine, the pain, fear and anger that Nancy goes through all have a visceral effect on the audience, on the surface it may seem like simple stuff but it’s Lively’s ability to make those emotions work that sells the film. Specifically the amount of pain she suffers with the shark bite being the first of her problems, throughout the film she has to deal with an onset of blood loss, gangrene, sunstroke, dehydration and some emotional trauma at seeing other people eaten alive in front of her – for the shark’s first kill you only see Nancy’s reaction to the scene which is just as disturbing as actually watching it. This is probably the best role of Lively’s career and one that should set her on a path towards stronger projects.
The only real criticism I can give the film is the CGI, particularly when we’re allowed to view the shark for an extended period of time, a mistake director Jaume Collet-Serra makes is allowing us to see too much of the beast, removing a lot of the mystery around it. It’s a minor point and never enough to take you out of the film, but the CGI is noticeably iffy at a few moments.
Despite that though the rest of the film serves itself well and Serra’s ability to rack up the tension with such a limited scope is what makes the film work, there’s only so much that he and Lively are able to do on this rock but they use that to their advantage, by cutting out any logical option they look towards the illogical and at times downright dangerous ways that Nancy can get off the rock and towards some semblance of safety, due to the simplicity of the film it’s difficult to go into what she does without spoiling anything but suffice to say the combination of no choice and no time makes each decision a make-or-break situation.
One trait that Serra uses frequently is a sudden slow-motion shot, some might say that he overdoes them and the argument is there but they serve a point, in the beginning when Nancy is surfing the waves it’s used to highlight the adrenaline coursing through her, slowing time to highlight her excitement and freedom, when it’s used again for the shark attack it’s highlighting adrenaline again but a very different kind. Each slow-mo shot is only a few seconds long but it focuses all the attention on that moment, for a film as centrally focussed as this, having all the momentum suddenly rush to a stop can be pretty jarring but in a manner that can take your breath away when used properly. One moment near the beginning of the third act as Nancy attempting a mad dash to safety, only to be let down by a rusty handrail, in that moment the slow-motion is used perfectly and makes it easier to see how it’s implemented throughout the rest of the film
What The Shallows lacks in originality it makes up for in execution which is what you need for a film like this, shark attack movies are nothing new but the film knows that and instead sets about making the best shark attack movie they could, and it works. This is just a really good film, it might not hit the levels of greatness it wants to but in an age of blockbusters and comic-book movies, it’s nice to have such a low-key, competently made, small-scale thriller with a strong female lead to mix things up a little.