It would be really easy to make a joke about The Shallows being a shallow film, especially because the story is so simple. The problem is that The Shallows is actually quite good.
After directing a trilogy of action films starring Liam Neeson, a horror film starring Blake Lively might seem like an odd choice for Spanish filmmaker Jaume Collet-Serra. However, The Shallows bears striking similarities to Non-Stop, the 2nd film in Collet-Serra’s Neeson series. While Non-Stop takes place almost entirely on an airplane, The Shallows takes place entirely on a beach in Mexico. Where Non-Stop got bogged down by confusing subplots and confusing motivations, The Shallows keeps it as simple as possible, which is part of its brilliance. Because let’s be real: I was curled up in a ball and screaming the entire way through.
What keeps The Shallows from seeming like a stereotypical shark horror film is the way that it responds to audience expectations. The audience is totally expecting the shark from the very beginning (and even if they walked into the film cold, there is a fabulous opening sequence that sets up the tone perfectly), so as soon as the leading lady, Blake Lively in this case, enters the water, there is slo-mo and tense music. From there, the movie lets the audience forget about the shark for a little while, but throws in little hints throughout, until the shark is introduced and Blake Lively’s character (hereafter referred to as Nancy) catches up to the audience. There are underwater shots a plenty, and each one is a little freakier than the last. The audience doesn’t know when the attack will happen, they just know that it will happen. By acknowledging the audience’s expectations from the beginning, the movie is able to build the audience’s anticipation, and ultimately have a much more effective first attack.
Another simple trick that works in the film’s favor is the consistency of location. The entire movie takes place on the Mexican beach, with no flashbacks in between. Not only this, but even while Nancy texts her friends and FaceTime’s her family, there are cute techniques to keep the audience centered on the location at hand. The text or screen appears at the left or right of the screen, while Lively walks along the sand. This sense of isolation works in the film’s favor because there is no escape for the audience. The movie is able to conduct a brutal frontal assault with attack after attack and no small sense of security. This must have been a terrifying movie to film.
The cinematography within The Shallows is also seriously impressive. Not only does it make a fabulous argument for a GoPro found footage horror movie, but as Nancy heads into a night alone on a rock, the nighttime cinematography is creepy in the best way. Because there’s so little natural lighting, everything is a hard to see. However, because the audience still has to see the main character, there is enough light to see what is going on, but not too much where things are to watch. Especially in a dark theatre, this is such an unsettling choice, because the audience knows that the shark could strike at any moment.
To make matters worse (because this movie is so scary), there’s always a little bit of hope that Nancy will make it out alright. In a slight side-note, there’s a slightly uncomfortable thought about Nancy, a Caucasian woman, surviving while many Mexican men die. However, Jaume Collet-Serra is Spanish, so that makes it feel slightly less weird, I suppose. Anyway, because there’s a glimmer of hope for Nancy, she is always looking for a way out. This means that she endangers her life several times to try and save it. So not only is the movie scary because of the inherent predator and the lack of security, but there are various moments where all the audience can do is cringe and hope Nancy makes it to safety in time.
The shark looks really good, which is crazy considering that it wasn’t done until the week of the premiere. Occasionally, it moves in a weird wat or looks a little off, but Collet-Serra is so good at manipulating what is seen by the audience that the shark could be a clay figurine and I would still be scared. Near the end, the situations get a little more ridiculous, but the movie does such a good job of winning the audience onto it’s side that the actual ending doesn’t really matter that much. Kind of like Jaws, I suppose.
The Shallows only really aims to be frightening, but it is so so scary. I kept checking my watch throughout seeing how many minutes were left, not because I wasn’t enjoying the movie, but because I was genuinely invested and wanted Nancy’s latest scheme to work. Also because I wasn’t sure how much more of the movie I’d be able to take. The film is only 87 minutes long, but it doesn’t waste a single second. Everything is just so effective. It might be too… shallow… for some, but for those who are looking for non-stop thrills, this is the one.