Since Jaws was released in 1975, there hasn't been a thriller in the same vein that matched the incredibly tense action on Amity Island, and had the power to illicit a tangible fear of an everyday activity. Many viewers will have declared "I'm never going to swim in the sea again."
Jaume Collet-Serra's tense horror thriller The Shallows, starring Blake Lively, attempts to change that. Lively plays Nancy Adams, a medical school drop-out and avid surfer, who travels to Mexico to sample the waves on a secluded beach. Soon, however, she finds herself on the feeding ground of a particularly vengeful great white shark and despite being only 200 yards from shore, getting there proves the ultimate test of will.
When it comes to film genres, shark movies can't help but feel the most Marmite. More so than any other category, there seem to people who absolutely love their heightened sense of threat or often over-the-top gore, while others hate watching them because they're deathly afraid of sharks. Alternatively, there are those who simply avoid them because they think that they are downright silly. If any outing can help change the former's opinion though, it's The Shallows, an unrelentingly taut thriller, directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, that knows what its audience wants and never bites off more than it can chew. (Sorry.)
The film's tightness undoubtedly comes down to its script and screenwriter Anthony Jaswinski boasts skills he's evidently learned from his horror roots from the get-go. Starting with a slow, saccharine opener and interjecting bursts of exciting yet hard-to-watch moments throughout, we begin with Nancy and two newly-made friends tearing through the waves, crashing in the surf set to loud, pulsing music. It's not quite the calm before the storm but the fun before, creating a sense of unease with the audience as they enjoy the view knowing full-well that it will end very soon.
Flavio Labiano's cinematography mimics this, capturing the stunning, paradise-like whereabouts of Nancy that manages to lure you into a fall sense of security before she comes up against the shark while simultaneously making it obvious that something bad is about to happen. We could have done without the lingering shots while Lively zips up her wetsuit, mind...
While the backdrops are breathtaking, once the antagonist shows up, you never really have time to notice them and the film quickly becomes Lively's rodeo. Quite literally too, the movie's action does genuinely kick-start with her straddling a dead whale in the ocean. The epitome of steely determination, Lively's Nancy never freaks out, reacting to each obstacle with smarts she's learned in medical school and through her familiarity with the water. We see her using her sports stop-watch to time the shark's rounds and come up with a plan. She even stitches up a particularly grisly leg wound with her earrings − it's serious heroine stuff and she's completely believable in the role.
She's not the only acting talent on the roster, however. Not since The Little Mermaid was released in 1989 have cinema-goers labelled a sole seagull a scene-stealer – even though the ones in Finding Nemo gave it a good go − but Steven Seagull certainly follows in Scuttle's webbed footsteps. Acting as the only 'character' for Lively's Nancy to bounce off of, the gull often provides comic relief, albeit through a sassy squawk or a look through the camera and each time he gets a laugh, you're lured into a fall sense of security that everything's going to be OK.
While The Shallows manages to land its shocks in a relatively unique fashion – there's only so many ways a shark can creep up on someone, after all – it's not quite so successful in bucking the creature feature trend of by-passing character development. Jaswinski tries to get you to connect with Nancy by offering up a reason as to why she wants to travel to this specific beach; her mother surfed there when she found out she was pregnant and has since passed away, but it's not touched upon enough to elicit the empathy he'd clearly hoped it would.
Similarly, a couple of scenes see Nancy texting her friend back at the hotel and talking with her family in the US through FaceTime but again, the hurried nature of such sequences don't give us much of a sense of who Nancy is and what she means to these people. They simply make us aware that she does have people close to her and they're not here, emphasising how alone she is. It's bloody eerie, granted, but doesn't exactly conjure up pathos.
That being said, it's not exactly a new trend for most shark movies to opt for scares rather than depth and The Shallows is far more intelligent than others in the past at least, simply because it never tries to go too far. There's no Stellan Skarsgård getting his arm bitten clean off, like in Deep Blue Sea, here or Shark Night, presenting every kind of shark under the sun.
Nor is there anything that resembles the worst scene in animal horror history...when the lead character in Sharknado jumped into the mouth of a great white and cut his way out of its belly with a chainsaw. So it's refreshing to see a film that feels focused on the emotional strain such a situation would have on a person and what happens when the survival instinct really kicks in. If nothing else, you relate to Nancy on a human level and can't help but imagine yourself in her situation and think about how well you'd fare.