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