The Shallows Has Us Right Where It Wants Us

By  · Published on June 17th, 2016

This Modestly Budgeted B-Movie Played Us Like A Fiddle.

We’re only a week away from its release and I’m still absolutely fascinated by the positive buzz I see for The Shallows. On paper, the whole thing seems like a recipe for disaster. Take a dash of Jaws, a liberal pinch of Open Water, and stir way, way too long, well past the point where audiences have any hope left for a half-decent shark movie. Add in a television actress from a millennial soap opera, the director of House of Wax, and the screenwriter for Vanishing on 7th Street. Throw it all into the same weekend slot as Independence Day: Resurgence (for the mainstream crowd), Swiss Army Man, and Neon Demon (for the genre crowd), and let it try and claw its way to box office relevance. If The Shallows had stumbled even a little bit with its marketing, we’d probably be talking about this film the same way we talk about The Darkness; that is to say, not at all.

Thankfully, stumble it did not. When the final trailer was released, most major outlets took an opportunity to reflect on how far the needle had moved for their own interest in the film. A.V. Club’s Caroline Siede said it looked like “everything you could hope for from a ‘Blake Lively shark movie.’” Birth.Movies.Death’s Scott Wampler admitted it might be one of his most-anticipated movies of a “non-starter” summer. Angie Han of /Film called it a “breath of fresh air” in a season of blockbuster sequels. Everywhere you look on the internet, people are coming to terms with the fact that The Shallows is a movie they are now interested in seeing. It may not warrant the same level of praise as Deadpool, but what the filmmakers and the marketing team at Sony have done is worthy of a little attention.

Of course, this begs the question: what is it that makes The Shallows stand out so much? Just this past week, Forbes box office guru Scott Mendelson wrote an article about why he thinks The Shallows is still in for a very big weekend against stiff competition. Much of his credit goes to the thought Sony put into their trailers. “It’s a dynamite piece of unconventional marketing,” Mendelson wrote about the third and final theatrical trailer, “which not only entices and intrigues but reassures audiences that they haven’t seen the entire movie in 2.5 minutes.” It is true that The Shallows has been careful with the amount of information it provides. While we know that at least half of the film’s (very small) cast ends up as shark food, the trailers seem to leave off right as the movie itself is going to get good.

The previous two trailers for The Shallows set the scale for the film; each one added a little to the visual scope without distracting from the survivalist story at the film’s heart. This last trailer, though, adds some virtuosic filmmaking into the mix. In one long take, Lively’s character is pulled off camera, only to slowly swim back into frame as a cloud of blood surrounds her head. Without cutting away, Lively’s face bursts forth from the cloud in a primal scream. It’s a staggering bit of visual imagination that puts to rest any doubts that The Shallows will struggle to keep the energy level up throughout.

So the trailers are good – great, even – but that’s only one part of it. While Mendelson has mostly blockbuster sequels in mind when he refers to The Shallows as “unconventional,” there’s also probably something to be said for the way it plays up against its genre competition. The trailers for The Shallows have been featured alongside trailers for The Darkness and Lights Out in movie theaters around the world; in each of these last two films, we are presented with a normal array of jump scares and impenetrable darkness. Once you notice how much sunlight is present in The Shallows, you cannot help but look forward to the prospect of a brightly lit horror film. The industry might be slowly moving away from the grim-dark approach popularized by filmmakers like Zach Snyder, but that doesn’t mean a tropical thriller can’t still be a wonderful reprieve from the black and grey.

On top of all this, The Shallows also sells itself as a very earnest horror film. One of the most frustrating things about pastiche is the limitations it places on a film. It’s all well and good for a studio to release a film shot in the style of a ’70s or ’80s exploitation cinema, but if the movie is more interested in ticking off pop culture references than telling a cohesive story, it won’t last as a cultural icon. We hold a soft spot in our hearts for animal attack movies like Alligator or Anaconda despite their rough spots, not because of them; they were made by people who set out to make the best possible horror film they could about killer reptiles, and even where their films fall short, you can tell that they never stopped trying. Our guards might normally be up against a movie like The Shallows, but we’ve been won over by the film’s decision to play it straight.

Will The Shallows live up to its promise? It’s certainly possible that the film is pretty much what it seemed like at a first glance: a middling thriller made by an OK group of talents. I choose to be optimistic. It took an awful lot of talent and energy to move the needle with most audiences from disinterest to interest. At this point, if nothing else, The Shallows has bought itself the benefit of the doubt.

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Matthew Monagle is an Austin-based film and culture critic. His work has appeared in a true hodgepodge of regional and national film publications. He is also the editor and co-founder of Certified Forgotten, an independent horror publication. Follow him on Twitter at @labsplice. (He/Him)