The Shallows serves up plenty of thrills and scares, but it prioritizes taut storytelling over character building.
After her mother dies of an illness, medical school student Nancy Adams (Blake Lively) takes a much-needed vacation to the beaches of Mexico, where she hopes to find peace by surfing on the waters. Even though her friend cannot accompany her - leading to a dangerous situation of surfing alone - Nancy still takes to the waves, befriending some of the locals and enjoying her time outside. Despite the concerns of her sister (Sedona Legge) and father (Brett Cullen), Nancy intends to remain in Mexico for an undetermined amount of time, losing her passion for her life's goals following the loss of her mom.
Towards the end of her first day surfing, Nancy learns that the ocean isn't the safe haven she thought it was, as she is attacked by a great white shark looking to defend its feeding ground. Stranded 200 yards from shore and seriously injured, Nancy must fight for herself against the predator, while also looking for a way to call for help and get back to the land.
Running at a tight 87 minutes, The Shallows knows exactly what it is and doesn't have any greater ambitions of being anything other than a modern-day survival B-movie. It is successful in that regard, though director Jaume Collet-Serra's economic narrative proves to be a blessing and a curse. The Shallows serves up plenty of thrills and scares, but it prioritizes taut storytelling over character building. Because of this, it may not be as memorable for some as it could have been.
Collet-Serra, known for horror films House of Wax and Orphan, as well as a handful of Liam Neeson action vehicles (Unknown, Non-Stop, Run All Night), certainly has a strong handle on those aspects of The Shallows. Once the shark arrives, the film is a tense ride throughout, as the threat of the great white looms large over every scene. The filmmakers take an approach similar to Jaws in minimizing the shark's screen time to increase the suspense and terror. Images of its fin sticking out of the water or its full body obscured under the water leave viewers on the edge of their seat. When Collet-Serra opts to show his shark in full, the sequences are still very effective (despite some obvious CGI), as Nancy's close-quarter battles with the great white are horrifying to watch.
When a single actor has to do much of the heavy lifting in a film like this, it's always a challenge, and fortunately Lively is up for the task. Her performance is more of the physical variety than dramatic, as she spends most of the film battling the shark, yelling for help, and tending to her bloodied leg. Still, she is convincing in the role and sells audiences on the desperation and perilousness of her situation. As The Shallows moves along, the audience grows attached to Nancy simply by living vicariously through her as she digs deep for survival. It also doesn't hurt that Lively gets to spend the first moments of the movie fleshing Nancy out a bit, allowing viewers to understand her emotional state and motivation for traveling to Mexico.
That said, it would be a stretch to call Lively's Nancy one of the premiere horror movie heroines. The screenplay by Anthony Jaswinski crafts paper thin characters that are mostly fodder for the real star of the film (the shark) than well-rounded individuals. Even Nancy's setup is all too brief and feels rushed (told primarily through phone pictures and FaceTime chats) so the story can shift gears quickly to the great white's attack. Again, this approach is appreciated in the age of studio tentpoles that can be stretched over 2.5 hours at times, but Collet-Serra may have benefitted from dedicating a little more time developing the characters at the beginning. The supporting actors are serviceable in their roles, but the fact that they're all upstaged by a seagull (undeniably this film's take on Cast Away's Wilson) is a prime illustration of the characters (except Nancy) being props to showcase the terror of the shark.
Because of this, The Shallows doesn't resonate as strongly as it might have for certain viewers. There is a nice message at its heart (always keep fighting and never give up), making Nancy's ordeal an interesting metaphor for her life. Still, the themes are vague sketches that exist mainly to give moviegoers arguably superficial reasons to care about the protagonist. It's apparent Nancy misses her mother, but The Shallows could have been more effective if that dynamic was explored further (beyond scrolling through photos). This film understands people are here for the shark, but digging deeper past the surface level relationships presented wouldn't have hurt and may have made Nancy's arc in the film more satisfying for the audience. Nancy's family members are essentially glorified cameos that don't amount to much - even though the film hints at a stronger connection.
In the end, The Shallows is a simple thriller that doesn't concern itself with substance as much as scenes of pure horror. Those who are tired of the overblown big studio blockbusters that have been released this summer may find The Shallows as a nice palate cleanser; a stripped down film that cuts to the chase and doesn't overstay its welcome. Yet, it's hard to recommend it to everyone, since there are some viewers who will want more bang for their buck. Those up for B-movie genre thrills at the theater should enjoy The Shallows, but others can wait for home media to check it out.
The Shallows is now playing in U.S. theaters. It runs 87 minutes and is rated PG-13 for bloody images, intense sequences of peril, and brief strong language.
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