Director – Jaume Collet-Serra
Cast – Blake Lively, Óscar Jaenada, Angelo Jose, Lozano Corzo, Jose Manual, Trujillo Salas, Brett Cullen, Sedona Legge, Pablo Calva, Diego Espejel
Release Year – 2016
Reviewed by John of the Dead
It has been 41 years since Jaws debuted and we’re still afraid of sharks in the ocean. Unfortunately, we haven’t seen too many good killer shark flicks in those 41 years. That isn’t to say the genre hasn’t tried. I mostly enjoyed Deep Blue Sea, The Reef, Shark Night 3D, and maybe some Sharknado, and there have been others like Open Water and Bait. Sadly, none of them are hard hitters. I didn’t plan on watching The Shallows until it hit discount theaters. I skipped on its trailers and honestly planned to check out Independence Day: Resurgence and Neon Demon and let this one slide for a while. Then, the good reviews started coming in. Some critics were even claiming this is the best shark film since Jaws. While I don’t know if that is true, I will say that it’s the best shark film of this millennium.
Shortly after the death of her mother, Nancy (Blake Lively) embarks on a trip to a secluded Mexican beach – the same beach her mother discovered when she was her age. With an unreliable travel companion she finds herself alone on the beach, which conveniently provides her with the self-reflection she has been seeking. When a rogue great white shark leaves her bleeding atop a rock 200 meters from shore, she must race against time and make it back to shore before the tide rolls back in. With nobody coming to save her and the shark still looming in the waters, she must use every ounce of courage, perseverance, and ingenuity to survive one of Earth’s fiercest killers.
The Shallows comes written by Anthony Jaswinski (Kristy, Vanishing on 7th Street, Satanic) and is a very straight-forward effort. It opens with Nancy catching a ride with Carlos, a charming local who knows how to get to the secret unnamed beach she is searching for. It doesn’t take long for her to reach her destination nor show us why she is there. A brief video chat with her sister and father shows us that since her mother’s death Nancy has not been her usual self. Instead of seeing her mom as a fighter who combated cancer until the bitter end, she sees life’s obstacles as inevitable and has since dropped out of medical school because of this. Nancy is lost and searching for peace. She isn’t entirely alone on the beach though, as two other locals are enjoying the surf. She makes friends and they let her in on some local knowledge, including the presence of a large underwater rock covered in fire coral. This knowledge ultimately comes in handy when she finds herself alone with the shark. Instead of heading in at sundown with her two new compadres she decides to push the limits and enjoy one last swell before heading in. This proves to be a big mistake. A nearby whale carcass has invited a large great white shark and he has set his sights on Nancy being his next meal. After the initial attack she is forced to use the whale and then the nearby rock to stay above water and out of the shark’s grasp. Of course, she is running out of time and being severely injured she cannot simply swim to shore, bleeding of all things, and hope to outrun the killer shark.
From this moment out the horror is simple but surprisingly effective. At 86 minutes in length (including credits) there could have not been a longer runtime for a film set in one location with only one main character. Cast Away did it with almost 2.5 hours, but Tom Hanks had an island – Blake Lively only has a rock. There are two types of killer sharks in movies: the realistic and the unrealistic. This story plays on the latter and does so in a way that doesn’t make it cheesy. This isn’t some genetically modified / advanced man-hunter. For some reason, though, it really has it out for Nancy. While she is the only main protagonist, there are a couple of supporting actors who merely serve as fodder for shark. People need to die in order to keep the viewer engaged, so any time that it seems like help might be on its way Nancy is instead forced to watch as the shark chows down on every ounce of hope she has. Eventually she stops relying on hope that others will arrive and things get really interesting when she takes matters into her own hands.
Director Jaume Collet-Serra (Orphan, House of Wax remake) does a damn good job here. To start, the visuals are incredible. While I simply assume the film takes place in Mexico because the locals speak Spanish and there are indeed great white sharks off Mexico’s shores, this flick was actually filmed in Australia. From wide aerial shots to underwater cinematography, I was very pleased with the visual output. He also expertly blends the use of Nancy’s technology into the film. It was awesome to watch her check the countdown until the impending tide via her watch and have it blend with the screen, and the same went with her use of social networking as well. I typically get annoyed at seeing social networking in films, but this was done surprisingly well. The character performances are good, and this is obviously dominated by Blake Lively as she appears in every scene. Her character is a bit cheesy in my opinion, as you already know what you are going to get from her. She is battling internal issues and eventually she is going to push past them and channel the inner-fighter to persevere as her mother would have wanted her to do. You know this as soon as the first act is over. Nonetheless, she did well and her struggles felt real. To me, the biggest star in these types of films is always the animal antagonist. The use of the shark here is the best I have seen in decades. For being CGI the shark looked fantastic, and it was the mannerisms that sold me. While I feel its actions are unrealistic in my opinion, serving as a shark that merely wants to kill and not eat its prey – bypassing a blubbery whale for some skinny humans, it still wasn’t too over the top. The tenacity makes it a fearsome foe, but it doesn’t do dumb things like beach itself onto her rock or sink passing ships. As a PG-13 effort you won’t see much gore, but there are at least two gruesome scenes for us to enjoy. One involves an ill-fated local and the other is a torturous scene where Nancy has to McGuyver some makeshift stitches. Jaume has proven himself as a solid horror director and I am glad to see him return to the genre after a 7-year hiatus.
Overall, The Shallows is a good killer shark film and definitely the best of the last few decades. For a PG-13 flick it brings good tension, plenty of thrills, and some decent kills. Due to its storyline centering on one central location, which is only about 10 meters across, I feel that some may find the lack of movement to be un-engaging so this will likely be a mood-based horror piece.