Director Jaume Collet-Serra has kept it relatively safe for most of his career, although he did follow the mediocre outings that were 2005’s House of Wax and the 2007 sports sequel Goal II: Living the Dream with Orphan, a nicely-crafted thriller boosted by strong performances and a cracker twist. Serra has since teamed up with Liam Neeson for three serviceable thrillers, Unknown, Non-Stop and Run All Night, and with The Shallows continues his run of confident, entertaining films that fit nicely within their respective genre moulds without ever threatening to push too far in any groundbreaking direction.
Blake Lively plays Nancy, an American surfer who we meet as she makes her way to a secluded beach in Mexico. We learn that Nancy, a medical student, has recently lost her mother to cancer and is hitting up Mexico as an escape of sorts with a girlfriend. With her friend nursing a hangover back at the hotel, Nancy decides to hit the very same beach her mother had surfed at years before. It’s a beautiful location, with clear blue water, perfect waves, and almost no one else in sight. Nancy’s having a good time, until a certain great white shark decides she should be a priority on the menu. She is soon left but 200 yards from the shore, sporting an injury and stranded on a rock that will soon disappear with the rising tide.
What follows is an amiable, somewhat mindless and often exciting exercise in situational suspense. Screenwriter Anthony Jaswinski (Backwoods, Kristy) tackles the simple plot with a no-nonsense approach, keeping the narrative moving energetically to each new plot turn. The beat-by-beat type of format helps the contained premise
fly swim by rapidly, a necessary factor in a film aiming to maintain excitement levels for almost its entire short-and-sweet 86-minute running time. Thanks to Jaswinski’s tried-and-tested approach and using the slasher movie formula to piggyback on, The Shallows succeeds in keeping nerves altered and having eyes firmly glued to the screen throughout.
The film’s shortcomings often come down to the moments and developments that teeter on the edge of being outright silly. There’s a reliance on convenience throughout, which admittedly is often the name of the game in survival thrillers such as this, but every now and then disbelief is stretched a tad too far, a detriment made all the worse when it pulls your emotions out of the moment. Nevertheless, the aforementioned pacing and the focus on sequential storytelling do help smooth out these bumps.
The Shallows also benefits from Blake Lively’s performance. The Gossip Girl alum puts in a very physical performance, as such a role would understandably call for, but she also delivers on the emotional elements that draw the audience further into her plight. Lively makes Nancy an easy character to root for; she’s sweet, clearly outgoing, loves her sister, and is dealing with the death of a parent – fight, damn it! Fight! It’s a confident turn, essentially carrying the film on her shoulders throughout. On top of that, yes, she’s very easy on the eyes, as Serra’s often-gratuitous shots would really like you to know.
What we have here is a film that knows what its audience wants and delivers accordingly. There are a few moments that ask for a bit too much leeway when it comes to checking your brain at the door, and the film’s modest budget does become noticeable here and there when some questionable CGI rears its ugly head, but The Shallows stays afloat by keeping its premise fun, visceral and engaging. At a time when audiences have some sky-high concepts, bloated visual effects and overly dense plots trying to take chunks out of their wallets, it’s refreshing to enter a simple thriller like this, knowing what you’re getting, and being left satisfied when it’s delivered.
THE REEL SCORE: 7/10