You gotta hand it to director Jaume Collet-Serra. In just a little over eleven years behind the camera, he’s been responsible for three really strong modern horror classics—2005’s House of Wax (I’ll humbly defend this one to the bitter end, folks), Orphan, and now The Shallows, which has Blake Lively facing off against a deadly oceanic predator for 87 minutes. Taut, thrilling, and viciously fun, The Shallows is a great summer thriller that perfectly demonstrates the truth of that old adage: sometimes less truly is more.
The Shallows follows free-spirited Nancy (Lively) down to a secluded and mysterious beach in Mexico after recently taking a leave from medical school due to the untimely loss of her mother. Nancy is looking to take in some waves and get away from it all, so she heads out to an area her mother once surfed years ago—a place we don’t even learn the name of, where it is truly Nancy against the world. As she’s enjoying riding break after break, our heroine stays out just a little too long and ends up being attacked by an enormous shark, who leaves her stranded in the water with very little hope for survival.
As we’re currently in the midst of a wave (pun intended) of shark-themed horror movies that generally don’t take their material all too seriously, I really appreciate how Collet-Serra approaches his menacing and cold-blooded villain in The Shallows, making the shark a sleek and mean predator with an unrelenting bloodlust. Lively, who I’ve been a big fan of since seeing her work in the underrated 2006 comedy Accepted (and yeah, maybe even The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, which I took my niece to a year prior to that—don’t judge me), does a fantastic job keeping viewers engaged with the plight of her character for the entire runtime of The Shallows, an unquestionably impressive feat, especially since she’s alone about 90% of the time.
After seeing the film, I researched where and how they shot it and was incredibly surprised to find out that most of The Shallows was actually done inside a warehouse. Now, I’m even more impressed with the look of the film because there isn’t one moment when you don’t feel like you’re out on that sun-soaked beach south of the border with Lively. It’s pretty amazing.
Cinematographer Flavio Martínez Labiano does a stellar job immersing the cameras right into those dangerous waters alongside Nancy, often bobbing beside her in flow of the currents or shooting upward from the depths. Most folks will make comparisons to the camera work in Jaws, which is pretty darn accurate, but I think Labiano’s filming approach is more in line with the spirit of Kathryn Bigelow’s Point Break, as he also allows his camera to focus on the beautifully hypnotic nature of the sea, making it easy for us to understand why Nancy would find solace out in the ocean in the first place.
As far as the shark itself goes, he’s pretty much all CGI, but for the most part, looks insanely real (barring an action sequence in the last few minutes that feels just a little cartoonish), and I’m thankful that the powers that be on The Shallows knew the importance of a good-looking shark and spent the money they needed to make sure the big guy looked as authentic as possible. And kudos to the VFX team behind him as well, because by and large, it’s some of the best animated shark work I’ve ever seen.
Something I wasn’t expecting was just how many parents were at my viewing of The Shallows with their kids, so I think the film’s timing is perfect, as it seems like the popularity of Discovery Channel’s “Shark Week” is spilling over into multiplexes. The Shallows really is one of those “perfect opportunity” films—it gives younger viewers the chance to see a horror movie featuring majestic creatures they’re already crazy about. There’s hardly any language and the gore is manageable for most folks, so it’s really nice to see that PG-13 horror is alive and well (Lights Out is another great one coming up that keeps the tradition going, too). And to someone who spent many summers at the movies watching all kinds of genre movies, it’s pretty damned cool to see, and frankly, that’s the best way to ensure that the horror genre lives on.
The Shallows may end up being one of the biggest surprises of the summer movie season; I was just hoping for a decent B-grade shark movie, and instead, Collet-Serra and his very capable star deliver a first-rate thriller with a keen sense of precision and tension. Lively is an engaging and likeable protagonist, her intelligence well-grounded within her character, and The Shallows succeeds due to her ability to keep us rooting for Nancy from start to finish. It may not be the best horror movie released this summer (it has some stiff competition, so that’s no dig by any means), but The Shallows was everything I wanted and more.
Movie Score: 3.5/5