Blake Lively fights a shark. What have you ever done?
We’ve seen more than a few shark-attack movies since Steven Spielberg’s 1975 blockbuster, Jaws, and like the tides these creatures call home there have been both high points and low points. The best know not to try and recapture the magic of what Spielberg created – an arguably impossible task in today’s world – and instead do their best to offer thrills, tension, and characters we give a damn about.
Thus explaining why last year’s Sharkansas Women’s Prison Massacre sits at the very lowest point.
Director Jaume Collet-Serra (Non-Stop, Orphan) gets it, and with the aid of sharp cinematography, an efficient script, and a leading lady giving her most compelling and capable performance yet, he’s delivered the second best shark movie since Spielberg’s classic. The Shallows is a terrific little thriller that might just leave you dreading your next trip to the beach.
Nancy (Blake Lively, The Age of Adaline) is a med-school dropout who’s left the pressures and disappointments of the real world behind for a trip to Mexico. Her specific destination is a remote beach that her mom first visited after discovering she was pregnant with Nancy, and after her mom succumbed to cancer coming here became the only thing that made sense. She arrives at the beach to discover she’s alone aside from a pair of local surfers, and after a quick FaceTime chat with her sister and dad she heads out to ride the surf.
The other two surfers leave, but Nancy’s not alone for long.
A shark gets a taste of her upper thigh leaving her stranded on a rock out-cropping a couple hundred yards from shore. With the shark circling and high tide approaching she’s forced to think fast and act even quicker if she wants to survive.
The setup to Anthony Jaswinski’s script is that simple – perhaps a lesson learned from having written a couple less effective and more convoluted horror thrillers – and with a running time under ninety minutes once the action and tension start they remain pretty consistent. There’s minimal backstory, mostly eked out via early conversations, but the ideas and themes are kept simple. Nancy’s stopped caring about medicine after the loss of her mom – what’s the point in fighting to keep people alive when they’re just going to die anyway? – but when faced with her own mortality she realizes giving up just isn’t an option.
A few other characters enter the fray, but this is mostly a one woman/one shark show, and Lively lives up to her name with a bright and energetic performance that holds our attention and has us cheering for Nancy’s efforts. There’s only room for so much emotion, but she ensures we care and root for her to become something other than fish food. The “final goodbye” video she records via a GoPro for her family is an expected beat, but we feel the resignation toward her fate imbued with a grit to survive. Another scene involving an off-camera attack is witnessed solely through the reaction on her face, and it’s strong enough to suspect Collet-Serra may have actually fed a crew member to a shark.
Yes she spends most of the film in a bikini, and yes the camera loves her for it, but while there are plenty of butt shots to captivate teenage boys Lively’s long, lean frame fills the frame with a believable strength and athleticism. There are some B-movie thrills here, but when she tosses her “First do no harm” credo out the window and goes to war with the shark we buy the fight she’s selling.
As capable as Lively is though she’s apparently not much of a surfer as the film feels the need to digitally paint her face onto an actual surfer’s head, and while it’s better than a similar (but laughably bad) effect in Blue Crush it still distracts a few times early on. The shark is all CG as well, but a couple motion shots aside it looks convincing enough to keep us on edge in fear of its next appearance.
Collet-Serra’s last three features have all been Liam Neeson thrillers of varying complexity and quality, and his skill at squeezing suspense from action scenes and presenting somewhat unbelievable story turns as visually compelling both benefit from this stripped-down affair. He integrates Nancy’s phone/FaceTime/watch smoothly onto the screen without interrupting the beauty and flow of the world around her, and he creates fantastic tension with the pacing and momentum of the shark’s presence. We’re given a mix of wide shots showing the beast in relation to Nancy and tighter ones that tease its presence just beyond the frame. Beautiful, sun-kissed cinematography by Flavio Martinez Labiano and a wonderfully propulsive score from Marco Beltrami complete the experience.
The Shallows is a fun thrill-ride any time of year, but it’s especially welcome in a summer filled with bigger and bigger spectacles that rarely seem to deliver much beyond cardboard characters and expensive CG. You’ll care, and you’ll be rewarded for doing so. Oh, and did I mention it’s also the best Steven Seagull movie since Under Siege?