Whilst surfing at a remote beach, Nancy is attacked by a great white shark. Unable to make the 200 yards back to shore, she finds herself trapped upon an outcrop of rocks in the middle of the bay. Whilst she is safe for now, the incoming tide will soon render her defenceless against the mercy of the shark.
It’s about time there was a more sensible approach to a killer shark film than Sy Fy and The Asylum have been using over the last few years with their never-ending supply of madcap mutated sharks with five heads, spewing toxic waste or simply being ghosts. I had been wishing for a return to normality and a return to the days when a killer shark film was actually scary and not stupidly juvenile. Thankfully, that day has come with The Shallows, a film which takes its cue from more realistic survivalist films like Open Water and 127 Hours and is far the better for it.
There’s not a whole lot of story involved in The Shallows, which keeps things nice and simple, and the focus on the situation at hand. However, it does take a while to get going as Nancy’s character is fleshed out a little. This is essential as the audience is going to spend the entire duration alongside her and so the better she’s developed, the more we’ll come to root for her. Blake Lively can act and manages to hold the film together on her own. She’s literally the only real character on show and hardly interacts with anyone else. The way she acts with her body, her facial expressions and some of her sound as she struggles through her ordeal speaks louder than any dialogue does. The pain, the stress, the exhaustion and the emotional torment that her character must endure is conveyed through non-verbal communication and it’s an impressive display. It doesn’t hurt that she’s incredibly attractive and looks amazing in a bikini, something which the camera does play on a fair bit.
Like a lot of these survival films where one character is rooted to a specific location, The Shallows needs to find new ways to keep the character in peril. After all, if she just sat and waited on the rocks for as long as possible, there wouldn’t really be much of a narrative to follow, would there? Right up until the finale, the script does a decent job of providing these new challenges, be it Nancy stitching up a wound on her leg, trying to reach a buoy or finding a way to climb aboard a dead whale carcass. Every new scenario poses new problems, and with the shark ever present there is constant sense of danger. Given that she’s the only real character, there’s a fair chance that she survives and so each of these different challenges, whilst difficult for her, amount to little more than extra pain and suffering rather than instant death. It does kind of take you out of the film from time to time, particularly towards the finale.
Her co-star, if you can call it that, is the killer shark. There’s no question that any killer shark in any film released post-1975 is immediately compared to the classic shark from Jaws. Most have failed to improve upon Bruce’s shock value the first time you fully see the shark, but some have tried. The shark here itself is a mixed bag of CGI. The best scenes of it are the brief but violent attacks it mounts when it breaches the surface – here, the shark looks scary. Particularly effective is the jaw and gum motion that great white sharks have when they bite, which is something pretty much all films featuring killer sharks have failed to replicate. There are some truly awesome shots of the shark which don’t involve a full body shot – the eerie shot of its silhouette gliding through the crest of a wave towards Nancy is not only chillingly realistic but reminiscent of some real-life photographs taken on an Australian beach a few years back involving a surfer and a shark hiding in the wave. Google them and you’ll see what I mean. The scenes of the shark swimming underwater, particularly during the finale, are less impressive. This is where CGI still needs to improve and become more realistic. I’d argue that the shark here is one of the most impressive put to film, third behind Bruce himself and the animatronic mako shark from Deep Blue Sea (that thing is magnificent). The fact you don’t see as much of it as you’d expect is a bonus.
If there is a problem with The Shallows, it’s in the final. The writers do such a good job in keeping things fresh that they seem to have written themselves into a box – how do you keep the same tone and low-key approach amidst a finale which, by the letter of the law in today’s movies, must be bigger and louder than everything else that has preceded it? The script resorts to cheap Hollywood tactics to increase the excitement and add in more high-octane action sequences which don’t exactly fit in well with the rest of the film and, to be honest, ruin the film.
The Shallows goes back to basics with it’s material and works well for the majority of it’s running time, using well-crafted set pieces and a sharp script to keep the main character in peril and the audience on the edge of their seat, effectively making the viewer scared of venturing back into water too deep. That’s a compliment too few films since 1975 have managed to attain.