Nancy (Blake Lively) is feeling a bit lost in life and is considering dropping out of medical school. She heads off on her own to a secret Mexican beach that had special significance to her dead mother. After spending some time surfing, she discovers the bay is hiding the enormous body of a dead whale.
That’s not all that’s lurking either, as she is attacked by a great white shark, but manages to escape onto a rocky outcrop. She’s only a few hundred metres offshore, but with a gash in her leg that will attract the shark back, it doesn’t seem there will be any way to get back to the beach. It also becomes increasingly apparent that the cartilaginous fish isn’t going to give up.
The Shallows got far better reviews at the cinema than what you might have expected for a movie that at a simple glance looked like high concept silliness bordering on exploitation cinema. Thankfully the film itself doesn’t concentrate on Blake Lively’s ass quite as much as the poster and trailers did, and instead focuses on creating a rather fun man vs. beast thriller.
Director Jaume Collet-Serra has previously shown he has good instincts for ratcheting up the tension in the likes of Orphan, Unknown and Non-Stop. Here he strips things back to something that seems simpler (although as the featurettes show, filming in the water caused all manner of issues), but which means real filmmaking skill is needed to stop it being boring. Largely the movie succeeds, with Lively putting in a good performance as a woman in dire straits, but who certainly isn’t painted as a damsel in distress waiting for a man to rescue her.
Some kudos should also be given for trying to bring a little depth to her character. While Nancy’s dead mother and need to remember to fight do add some characterisation, both that and some of the movie’s attempts at metaphor aren’t too much more than window dressing. What keeps you watching isn’t Nancy’s inner turmoil, but instead how the movie uses its simple setup to keep the plot moving, as well as ensuring that the tension is kept up through much of its running time.
Things do get very Hollywood at the end, with a climax which is so extreme and over the top that it verges on being unintentionally funny. It’s something the movie threatens to do all along, especially as it increasingly hints that we’re dealing with a shark that has a vendetta against humans, but it’s only once the film gets into the final stretch that it really lets rip and get super silly, with a giant fish that seems to have the smarts of Deep Blue Sea’s sharks and the almost supernatural hatred of humans of Jaws: The Revenge.
If what had been going on up to then hadn’t been pretty good, the ending really would have completely destroyed the movie, but thankfully there’s been enough entertainment to ensure that an extremely daft 10 minutes doesn’t screw things up too much.
Overall Verdict: So often films with such a simple but seemingly promising concept turn out to be complete duds, but thankfully The Shallows makes smart use of its woman vs. shark setup, only going too far into silliness right at the end.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac