Sharks always make for sensational movie villains. They're relentless, cold, strong, dumb, and always look cool gliding through the water on the way to their prey. What also makes them so cinematic is that they're the perfect conduit for reflecting fear. Because, well, everyone is scared of them thanks to the glittering array of razor sharp teeth that they have at their disposal.
Fear, and how to react to it, is what drives and informs our connection to The Shallows. Particularly the fear of Nancy Adams, played by Blake Lively, who carries and keeps the horror survival thriller afloat and captivating by vigorously selling just how dire and terrifying her situation is, while still remaining strong, composed and compassionate. At the same time, director Jaume Collet-Serra (Orphan, Non-Stop, Run All Night) manages to effectively grip viewers with his quick, succinct, occasionally jarring, yet intimate brand of filmmaking. He's not just able to drag out what could easily be a tedious and thankless endeavor, but he also raises the stakes of Nancy's exploits, all of which is done in a well-sustained and absorbing manner.
There's very little to know about The Shallows' plot because it's basically an elongated logline that reads: Pretty girl goes surfing. Gets bitten by a shark. Looks to survive on a giant rock 200 yards off the shore while the beast circles her, with only a light buoy and a rotting whale carcass in her vicinity and an injured seagull for a friend.
Before we're introduced to the incendiary shark that causes so many problems for Nancy, though, we have to go through some rather clunky exposition and back-story to build a bond between the audience and the character. While these details actually do inject the plot and emotion of The Shallows further into the story, for the first 15 minutes they're presented in such a blatant, cringe-worthy fashion that you're actually relieved when the great white shark finally lays its teeth into Lively.
From that point on, though, The Shallows delivers. Its preference for detailed, seeping injuries over violent gore works in its favor. It creeps under your skin, while the teases of the sharks' prowess only increases the tension in the audience, which is finally released and then immediately restarted when the sudden bursts of bloodshed, courtesy of the shark, arrive.
While any shark film is immediately compared to Steven Spielberg's Jaws, and there are enough shark POV shots and pans for The Shallows to be in this bracket, too, the more apt comparison is Gravity.
Now, I'm not saying that The Shallows is a mouth-watering combination of these films, especially since I don't think that celluloid could handle such a tantalizing hybrid. But like Alfonso Cuaron's Oscar winner, the scant setting and props makes it impossible for the viewer to know how Nancy will escape her predicament, which lulls you in closer. Plus, her loss of blood, the fluctuating tide, and the remoteness of her location all work as a countdown, meaning that she must take action and face her fear promptly. Or simply wither and die on a rock instead.
As it progresses, these elements help to make The Shallows more and more compelling and rousing -- seeing it with a large audience in a cinema is highly recommended -- with even its overly expositional opening assisting to increase the resonance and emotion as things become more critical and dramatic.
While hardly reinventing the wheel (you'll need to forgive a hefty dose of dramatic license and cheese to embrace its conclusion), The Shallows delivers the requisite thrills. And with a running time of just 87 minutes, it's a concise blast of summer cinematic fun that'll chill, shock, and keep you thoroughly entertained.