The Shallows is a tightly made thriller with a committed performance by Blake Lively, which makes it one of the better entries in the shark attack genre.
When watching The Shallows the first thing you notice is what is clearly one of the best performances of the year. It will make you laugh, cry, and cheer. Never did I think that a bird named Steven Seagull would capture the hearts and minds of the American movie audience. But he did. Oh, and the movie was good too. All joking aside (even though I’m not kidding that the seagull is fantastic), The Shallows is probably the best shark movie since Jaws — though competition is scarce. Shark movies since Jaws have been turned into camp-fests that demand increasingly complex permutations of the words “shark,” “mega”, and “tornado.” But what The Shallows does is make a return to the thriller formula that made Spielberg’s magnum opus so successful.
Blake Lively, in what is probably her best performance to date, plays Nancy, a med student who’s having an identity crisis in the face of her mother’s passing. In an effort to feel more connected to her she seeks out a secret beach that her mother once surfed at. However, after a gratuitous surfing montage that looked more like a music video, her trip to paradise takes a turn for horror.
Nancy stumbled upon the rotting corpse of a whale that a great white shark has been feasting on. Eventually, it sets its sights on her which begins a harrowing tale of survival that feels a lot like 2013’s Gravity. Over two grueling Mexican summer days, Nancy fights for her life. With a mix of ingenuity and smarts, she is able to do battle with the predator. Jaume Collet-Serra, who also directed the underrated thriller The Orphan, constructed some strong action sequences. And most importantly, they’re clear and narrative sequences (similar to the ones in Mad Max: Fury Road). Collet-Serra’s style — quick cuts, extreme close-ups, slow motion — is in your face is both an asset and hindrance to the end product of the film. He gives you a lens into Nancy’s physical struggle to the point where you cringe at every hit she takes. However, in the film’s less intense moments, that style becomes more camp than anything.
But at the center of all the chaos is a lake Lively with an emotionally and physically taxing performance. She makes you feel every bite, scratch and hit that Nancy takes. In a one person film, it’s sometimes hard to get the audience to like your character without them feeling obligated. Lively makes you want to root for her (and the seagull) by getting you invested into her story and character and making you feel the innate human desire to survive. The movie is intimate with her character physically, rarely straying far from her gaze or her face. It’s an important decision to take the wide open space of this beautiful beach and constrict our view of it to the tiny island that Nancy makes as her refuge — though it’s slowly being chipped away at by the tide — to make the film more claustrophobic than it may initially seem.
My one complaint about The Shallows lies in the narrative shift from this take of survival to its campy action finale. The majority of the movie borders on realistic with a look into the strength of the human spirit. While the screenplay may not be up to the direction or Lively’s performance, it feels urgent. But by the final act, the film all of a sudden turns into a Sharknado ridiculous “final fight” with CGI — the effects were quite strong in the first two acts — that flirts with B-movie status.
Even then, the in-your-face style and Lively’s committed performance are enough to make you cheer during the final showdown between Nancy and the shark. The Shallows doesn’t reinvent the wheel. It doesn’t even really add any new features. However, it’s an entertaining, well-made thriller that will satisfy you for its short runtime. And, refreshingly, it lacks the word “mega” in the title. Just for that, it deserves praise.