There is something to be said for a simple idea, well executed.
Steven Spielberg and author Peter Benchley collectively made the world terrified of sharks with Jaws. Since then imitators have grown more and more ridiculous in attempts to thrill audiences. The Shallows takes it back down to the basics. No genetically modified smart sharks, no cross-breeding with an octopus, and certainly no tornadoes. Just a giant primordial killing machine bent on human destruction, pitted against one single surfer. So exactly how a shark wouldn’t act in nature, but exactly how we see it in our nightmares.
Filmed in Australia, with some stunning underwater photography, we have the coast of Queensland standing in for a mysterious bay in Mexico. After her mother’s death, Nancy (Blake Lively) travels to Mexico to a secret beach that her mother visited while she was pregnant with her. While enjoying the surf she starts to recover from the grief, but stumbles upon a whale carcass that is the feeding ground of a great white shark. Wounded, hunted and stranded upon a small piece of rock, Nancy must fight for her life against a creature that was evolved to hunt millions of years ago.
This is a tight and neat set-up, with barely an ounce of unnecessary fat on it. The result keeps audiences on the edge of their seat for its short run time, as The Shallows mines that sense of tension for all it is worth. It is classic story-telling, pitting human ingenuity and endurance against a brutal force of nature. In that regard The Shallows really works at it. Everything it shows or does, has some sort of pay off down the line. It’s heroine has to use her wits to survive, and this is a film that will spell out that logical process (admittedly at times banging it out for the cheap seats) as she duels wits with the beast. Here Blake Lively brings a believable sense of desperation and determination to the character.
They also embrace the inevitable Jaws comparisons. Like that classic film The Shallows does not over use the shark, but rather keeps it as a looming presence, always prowling in the background. The writers also subvert expectations in one crucial sequence that pays homage to the film, setting things up for a pulse pounding climax, that is actually surprising and greatly cathartic.
A smart b-movie script, executed exactly as required, The Shallows is quite a ride.