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