Movie Review: The Shallows
By Ben Gruchow
July 5, 2016

Hang loose.

The Shallows is a surprisingly good thriller, with a sturdy if unremarkable woman-vs.-nature plotline set against a committed and convincing central performance, a location of startling beauty and peril, and an antagonist that's kept effectively concealed long after most killer-[insert carnivore here] movies give up the ghost. And if the actual creature itself is an iffy mixture of prosthetics and dodgy CGI… well, we've already bought into the location, the character, and the fright; our attitude toward pyrotechnics is comparatively forgiving. This is the second film of its genre this summer, after The Conjuring 2, to skyrocket past my meager expectations for it.

Part of this is undoubtedly due to its straightforwardness as a general shape. The movie’s scenario is simplicity itself: traveler arrives alone at a secluded tropical beach to take advantage of the surf, accidentally intrudes on the feeding ground of a massive shark, and is stranded on a rock without any aid or hope of same. It's not the first shark movie to make use of isolation as a scare tactic, not the first shark movie to do so mostly within the confines of a single set; it's not even the first one to do so with amateur video footage as an aspect of the production.

It is, perhaps, the first to do these things with ancillary story details that contribute so organically to the premise: the individual in question, Nancy Adams (Blake Lively) is not some random tourist, but a med-school student who travels to the same beach her mother went to after finding out she was pregnant. Surfing runs in the family, and this is Nancy’s way of coping with her mother’s recent death. Accordingly, she goes alone, although technology allows her to communicate with her father and younger sister back home more readily than she would have been able to had this movie taken place ten years ago.

The movie dawdles a little on getting to its central conflict, but only a little - as much dawdling as you can get away with in 87 minutes, at any rate. Nancy runs into a couple of locals, surfs with them, and we’re acquainted with the surroundings. The entire movie, more or less, takes place in a cove: enclosed, the shallow floor laid with beds of serrated coral, rock outcroppings that disappear at high tide. It's a great location, both expansive and claustrophobic, and director Jaume Collet-Serra and cinematographer Flávio Labiano take pains to show it off: early passages make extensive use of wide aerial photography (sometimes from a great distance) and slow-motion, and video conversations take place in floating windows superimposed over the scenery. This is one of those all-too-rare films shot in the CinemaScope aspect ratio that knows how to use the margins and corners of the frame in a sneaky and intelligent way - well enough, I'd say, so that a Shallows made to a 1.85:1 frame would have markedly less impact.

Nancy, despite warnings to the contrary, stays out in the water long enough to spot the desiccated remains of a giant whale rolling around in the surf. Suitably unnerved, she makes her way back to shore, and that's when she's knocked off of her board by a massive and suspiciously shark-like shadow in the wave behind her (this visual, weightless and kind of nonsensical, is one of a handful of dubious effects jobs that Serra’s skill at evoking atmosphere can't quite make up for). She's pulled under, the water clouds red. She surfaces and just barely makes it to a shallow outcropping in the middle of the water at low tide. Other than an injured seagull and the clothing and jewelry she's wearing, she's at the mercy of the elements. A buoy within sight offers the possibility of greater protection, but it’s too far away.

Thus we begin the central section of the film, and there are three reasons here why The Shallows succeeds where so many of its like-minded brethren have failed. The first is the setup; instead of a narrative about genetic or supernatural augmentation (Deep Blue Sea, roughly all of the SyFy movies ever) or specificity on a colossally idiotic scale (Shark Night, roughly all of the SyFy movies ever), we just have a person trapped in a natural environment in a (relatively) natural way, opposing a natural apex predator. The things that put her into and keep her out of danger (being above the waterline, blood, the deceptive shape of a surfboard) are things that are directly applicable to reality as we know it.

Really, the only movie that succeeds this well on the scale of plausibility is Open Water from 2003, and here we have our second reason. Unlike the central figures in that film, Nancy is sympathetic and resourceful; she's played with an air of immediate charisma and determination by Lively, and the movie absolutely does not survive to remotely the degree that it does without her as an emotional anchor and surrogate. We don't necessarily feel for her (more on that in a second), but we academically want her to succeed and live and triumph over the shark, which soon enough begins to transcend its nature by more than a little (more on that in a second, too).

The third reason grows out of the first two: because the scenario is plausible, and because Nancy is invested with enough smarts and human dimension to earn our collective support, we’re able to look just enough ahead of the character and circumstance to understand that the movie really doesn't intend on playing around. Nancy is a med-school student, so we buy it when she's able to patch up her injured leg to an extent (how this happens, and how it's depicted, is pretty gruesomely tactile for a PG-13 film, while somehow managing to not feel gratuitous)…but we also understand that, because she has the know-how to save herself from dying, there's really no reason why any of her escape attempts couldn't fail in significantly injurious fashion. So when she decides to make a break for her surfboard, or the buoy, we’re not necessarily expecting the typical photo-finish where she lifts her foot out of the water just in time so much as we’re expecting that…no, she really could lose her foot, and she'd know how to tourniquet it just well enough to leave her at a crippling disadvantage the next time she needs to attempt escape. The movie knows this, the movie knows that we know this, and it delights in toying with us because of it.

Serra does eventually bite off more than he can chew (ho, ho), and the shark begins to seem less like a dislocated and hungry predator and more like the remorseless and vengeful villain from the later Jawses, and we eventually reach the point in the story where we start to ask ourselves those immortal rhetorical questions: Is that really possible? How did she know that would happen? We’re closer to the movie’s end than usual for these questions to become obtrusive, and even the more ludicrous events of the final act are carried off so well on the level of sheer pacing and editing that we don't really mind the gaps in logic, or that the shark begins to look a little bit more like something made out of ones and zeroes, or that the movie ends a scene further than it really should have.

Still, the tension slacks off enough so that we're able to reflect on what we're watching, and we realize that The Shallows does not have much to offer on a psychological basis; we are being taken on a fun ride that will not linger for long in our memories after it’s over. For budget horror, we have survived through far less confident and far less capable than this.