As the name, rather ironically, suggests The Shallows is surface deep at best. It’s a straightforward and generally predictable thriller that is fit to bursting with cheap thrills and heart-pounding tension. What it’s lacking in quality is matched by its brevity, though its lean running time is more of a pro than a con. Though it’s unlikely to leave you cowering behind your seat or afraid to ever set foot in open water again, ala Jaws, there’s some enjoyment to be gleamed from The Shallows even if these moments are fleeting and generally unsubstantial.
Taking cues from low-budget thrillers such as Buried and Frozen (no, not the Disney musical), The Shallows follows a young woman who is thrown into an extreme life or death situation. The practically single location aspect of these movies always adds an extra layer of tension as it grounds the events and makes it easier for the audience to become absorbed in the lead’s struggle. The Shallows also benefits from throwing its main character into a situation that almost everybody would be terrified of: being stranded in the sea with a shark circling you.
Where The Shallows really goes wrong is in its ill-conceived attempt to flesh out its leading lady Nancy (Blake Lively). Her backstory, which sees Nancy surfing to escape the pain of her mother’s recent passing, feels both cliché and in one scene hugely emotionally manipulative. The symbolism is also laid on a little thick, not helped by the general B-movie nature of the rest of the movie. I suppose credit could be given for its slight ambition, but truthfully The Shallows would have been better had it fully embraced its superficial traits.
Blake Lively has clearly been getting some tips from her husband, who starred in the aforementioned Buried, as she gives a strong leading performance. Nancy is the only character with more than a few lines so The Shallows entirely rests on Lively’s ability to both connect with the audience and to convey the extreme terror of the situation. While poor writing lets her down on the former, she does a stellar job with the latter. You feel every scream and cry as Nancy grapples with the great white for her life. Lively deserves huge credit here because in the hands of a weaker actress The Shallows would be direct-to-DVD fodder instead of just a slightly throwaway thriller.
Pacing is one element that The Shallows truly nails. Though, of course, with a sub-ninety minute running time this is a considerably easier accomplishment compared to other films. The audience is always given breathing room between each intense sequence. Whenever Nancy ventures of her small rocky reef into the waters, coming face to face with the shark, you’ll find your heart pounding and your palms sweating. Those that struggle to suspend their disbelief may find a few moments in the third act a little hard to swallow, but The Shallows isn’t really a movie for those people. It’s also not a movie for those that dislike gore because there’s plenty of blood spilt (not just Nancy’s either).
Director Jaume Collet-Serra keeps the camerawork generally steady which makes the intense, almost action sequences easy to watch. He does, however, rely on special effects a little too much. As Spielberg proved in Jaws, less is more when it comes to sharks, but The Shallows, unfortunately, doesn’t take heed of this lesson. Some scenes that are clearly supposed to be terrifying are ruined thanks to ropey effects, which is disappointing considering the film had a healthy enough budget to avoid such a common cinematic pitfall. From a visual perspective, the movie is actually at times strangely beautiful, though it’s unlikely that the target audience for The Shallows is especially interested in the merits of the movie’s cinematography.
The Shallows is most similar to a low budget B-movie thriller that you’d typically find filling out the Netflix catalogue. It’s only thanks to a strong performance from Blake Lively that the film ever feels movie theatre worthy, and even then these moments are blink-and-you’ll-miss-them brief. At its very best The Shallows is a pulse-raising ride that feels appropriate for the summer movie season. However, where it ultimately falls short is in its disappointing attempts to elevate past cheap thrills.