The Shallows has a pretty great high concept that it stretches just far enough that it begins to creak, but not so far that it snaps back in the audience’s face.
The Shallows is very much a pulpy creature feature horror film, with a healthy dash of tourist anxieties thrown in for good measure. It is a film about a young surfer who finds herself stranded on a rock about two hundred metres from shore as she is menaced by a really determined shark. It is very much a high-tension high-stakes survival thriller, one that lends itself to pithy summaries like “Jaws meets Phone Booth“ or “Buried, where the part of Iraq is played by a menacing computer-generated shark.”
It is an absurd set up to sustain across a ninety-minute runtime, and it is to the credit of The Shallows that the movie realises this. The Shallows never resists the absurdity of its premise. It never hesitates or second-guesses itself. The film moves incredibly quickly, recognising that any moment where the tension slips is a moment at which the audience might begin question the underlying assumptions that hold the film together. Like its animal antagonist, The Shallows understands that it needs to keep moving forward if it is to survive.
The result is a survival horror movie less interested in subverting or deconstructing classic genre tropes than it is revelling in the pulpy possibilities of a story like this. The Shallows is much stronger for that.
A lot of the usual criticisms of these sorts of movies apply to The Shallows. The film relies an awful lot of contrivances to get its lead character into a situation where she finds herself stranded on a rock in the middle of the ocean engaged in a desperate life-and-death battle with single-minded super-predator. The exposition (particularly of theme) is applied with a very thick brush across the first fifteen minutes of the film, to the point where it feels like the protagonist should be expecting some sort of catastrophe to befall her based on the way the universe is aligning.
Indeed, Collet-Serra does an excellent job cultivating a sense of mounting dread. Even in those early exposition-driven scenes, there is a sense of danger lurking at the edge of the frame. Various locals refuse to tell Nancy the name of this tropical paradise. The camera pays careful attention to all of Nancy’s supplies, as if to underscore how much she might need them. When Nancy is left alone on the beach by her fellow surfers, the mood visible darkens. Crabs run up the beach as if trying to escape whatever is lurking in the surf.
None of this is particularly deep or nuanced. Nancy Adams is hardly a protagonist for the ages. Her quarter-life crisis is very much by the numbers, although The Shallows deserves some credit for choosing to convey a lot of the stock beats through clever visual interfaces and a smart phone slideshow… before it gets to a conveniently timed phone call in which characters repeatedly state facts known to both parties as a way to bring the audience up to speed. Blake Lively is an engaging presence, but is not necessarily an actor strong enough to anchor a single-hander.
However, these flaws also speak to the strengths of The Shallows. Director Jaume Collet-Serra understands exactly what kind of movie this is supposed to be, and sets about making the leanest and meanest version of that film. The fifteen minutes of exposition that open the film are blunt, but they are fast. They very much have the feeling of a film that wants to eat its vegetables first so that it can have the glorious shark-shaped ice cream that has been promised. A lesser film would draw these scenes out, or try to disguise its contrivances. The Shallows isn’t interested in that.
There is a purity of focus to The Shallows that is endearing and engaging. This is a film that doesn’t just embrace the ridiculous ideas that drive pulpy horror movies like this, it relishes them. When Nancy finds herself targeted by a malicious man-eater off an anonymous tropical beach, that man-eater goes all in. The film accepts the single-minded determination of its antagonistic apex predator, presenting a monstrous Great White Shark that makes the monster from Jaws look like a dilettante. This shark wants Nancy, and it commits itself wholeheartedly to that endeavour.
There are any number of ridiculous choices made by key characters at crucial points in the narrative. This is most obvious with a random bystander who enters the story long enough to demonstrate his greed and avarice, with the film swiftly reigning down karmic justice upon him. The sequence relies on incredible stupidity from the character in question, meaning that his grisly demise is all but set in stone from the moment he appears. Luckily, he does not have long to wait. The Shallows is not a film that messes around, and that stands very much to its credit.
If The Shallows slowed down, logic might creep into the equation. After all, the shark commits an incredible amount of energy to its pursuit of Nancy. Slash movie villains like Jason Vorhees or Freddie Krueger would call it a day, given some of what Nancy puts the shark through. More than that, the shark manages to get a number of tasty meals over the course of the ninety minute runtime, with most of them seeming far more substantial than the lone surfer stranded on a rock surrounded by coral.
To be fair, The Shallows doubles down on this logical conundrum by proposing a possible explanation for the shark’s single-minded hunger for the young American medical student. The possibility is quickly mooted and prompted discarded, a half-hearted pseudo-Freudian explanation of the beast’s psychology that just raises more questions than it answers. The way in which The Shallows addresses this point is instructive, suggesting a possible answer and moving along before the audience has a chance to really question it.
The Shallows works in a large part because of this straightforwardness. There is an efficiency at play here. When Nancy mentions that she is a medical student, the movie practically starts a countdown until that information comes back into play. When two surfers mention that there is coral that “burns like fire”, that is bound to come up again. When Nancy notices the buoy floating at the edge of the bay, it seems inevitable that her confrontation with the shark will take her out there.
Director Jaume Collet-Serra understands that momentum is the key, and The Shallows never stays stationary for too long. The film is paced very well, with Collet-Serra mining a number of set-ups for maximum suspense before quickly moving to the next suspense beat. Indeed, Collet-Serra repeatedly and cleverly overlays visual interfaces with his wide shots – whether video calls or a ticking watch – which helps to give the impression that there is no time to waste on an insert shot and that his edits are best reserved for immediate concerns like a giant man-eating shark.
The Shallows speeds towards a spectacular climax that runs on the same delightfully (and cheekily) hazy logic that powers so much of the first half. To be fair, there are some issues. The most obvious issue is the shark itself. Less of a concern when the shark is presented as a blur beneath the waves or a quick shot under the water, The Shallows employs a computer-rendered monstrosity. However, the computer-generated beast lacks the weight or substance that a model might provide, appearing unconvincing during the creature’s more ostentatious moments.
This is a minor issue. The Shallows is a film that embraces its name. It is a celebration of a certain horror movie aesthetic, playing through familiar beats with an endearing earnestness and single-minded focus that does its antagonist proud.