Years after Jaws and its sequels, we’ve finally reached the point where it was safe to go into the water. Now Jaume Collet-Serra has arrived to make sure that we’re once again terrified to dip even a toe into the ocean with The Shallows, an intense new thriller starring Blake Lively as a surfer struggling to survive on a lone rock just 200 yards from the shore. Collet-Serra has crafted a masterful thriller that blends the Murphy’s Law aspects of Gravity with the aquatic terror of Jaws. As much as The Shallows is a work of unrelenting tension there’s also a good amount of fun to be had in this story of struggle and survival.
The script by Anthony Jaswinski keeps the premise incredibly simple. Nancy (Lively) has recently lost her mother to cancer. As part of her mourning process, Nancy has taken a break from medical school and traveled down to Mexico, seeking a secluded beach that her mother used to surf at. Out in the bright blue water, Nancy meets a couple of locals who inform her of the tide along the beach – in low tide a rock will form a miniature island. As the locals swim to shore Nancy goes out to catch one last wave. She spots the floating carcass of massive whale and not long after a shark grabs her by the leg, leaving a deep bite mark in her thigh. Using her medical knowledge, Nancy crudely patches up her wounds but is left stranded on a rock slowly bleeding with no company but a wounded seagull. Now it’s all about surviving and finding a way to shore before the high tide comes in and obscures the sanctuary of the lone rock into the sea.
As good as Blake Lively is as the stranded surfer, the real star of The Shallows is Jaume Collet-Serra. The Spanish director is firing on cylinders using slow motion to build tension, misdirection to keep the audience on the edge of its seat, and still maintaining a sense of fun to harrowing ordeal on display. Opening with some GoPro footage of a shark attack, The Shallows opens like one of the more ominous episodes of Breaking Bad – you know something bad is going to happen it’s just a matter of how it happens. Knowing that the audience is curious as to how these events unfold, Collet-Serra frequently employs misdirection before unleashing the more horrific elements to incredibly effective results. It’s a constant cycle of building tension and releasing it ever so slightly before compounding the tension to an even greater degree.
The whole of The Shallows is about survival, but every scene is its own little struggle as part of a greater whole. Each struggle is frequently compounded with complications, because everything that can go wrong will go wrong – often in more ways than you can imagine. It’s all a matter of taking a smart, capable character and making them vulnerable physically and emotionally (like Die Hard, for example). In any given scene the shark circling around Nancy might only be the third most harrowing aspect of the situation, resulting in a story that is just non-stop in its suspense.
Over the course of 90 minutes, The Shallows takes you through a gamut of emotional responses to the images displayed on screen. There’s nail-biting suspense complimented moments of despair, laughter, and joy. Blake Lively gives one of the strongest performances of her career as she’s forced to carry the emotional weight of The Shallows with only the support of a seagull, affectionately called Steven Seagull in the movie. (Seriously, you’ll love that bird.) The Shallows is by no means just a rehash of Jaws, it’s a movie that stands firmly on its own in choppy waters. If there’s a weak spot to the film it’s simply a few moments of some shoddy CGI, but Collet-Serra employs such wonderful craft in creating the tension that a few poorly rendered effects aren’t enough to take you out of the moment. When it’s all said and done, it doesn’t matter how blue that water looks, I’m never going back into the ocean.
A masterfully suspenseful story of survival, The Shallows is intense and fun as it confirms that Jaume Collet-Serra is among the premiere directors working today.