The proliferation of cheap, lazy shark movies over the last decade or so (fueled by the ever-expanding VOD/streaming market, the Syfy channel and the Asylum, among others) has really devalued the idea of a decent shark thriller, to the point that any announced movie dealing with shark attacks is met with groans and dismissals. I admit that I felt the same way when first hearing about The Shallows, figuring that at best it might amount to a guilty-pleasure addition to this very Shark Week feature, should I decide to resurrect it. I missed the movie when it premiered in theaters, skipping the press screening for something else showing at the same time (I forget what), and assuming I'd only bother catching up if necessary for writing purposes. But the unexpectedly great reviews and word of mouth made me eager to give it a shot. A shark movie that's actually an effective, involving thriller? It seems almost too good to be true.
And to some degree, it is; I don't want to overstate the greatness of this movie, which surpasses dozens of other shark thrillers merely by not being incompetent. There are some absurdly unbelievable moments and some bits of manipulative sentiment, but the bulk of the movie is lean and suspenseful, with a surprisingly strong performance from Blake Lively as essentially the only character in the movie. At best, The Shallows resembles one-person-against-the-elements movies like 127 Hours or All Is Lost, although Lively is not on the same level as James Franco or Robert Redford in those movies. Lively's Nancy opens the movie headed to a secluded beach in Mexico, so far off the beaten path that it doesn't even have a name. After a few brief interactions, she's out all alone, and soon she finds herself on a tiny rock outcropping, just a couple hundred yards from the shore (hence the title), being menaced by a dangerous shark. Much of the movie is just Nancy attempting to survive (she has a nasty bite on her leg that she got before making it to the rock) while figuring out some way to either signal for help or make it the maddeningly short distance back to shore.
Director Jaume Collet-Serra has a sort of cult following among a subset of online critics thanks to his action movies with Liam Neeson (Unknown, Non-Stop, Run All Night), but I've never quite seen his appeal until here, where he takes a bare-bones thriller script and delivers it with just the right amount of style and restraint (for the most part, at least). He uses smart and mostly unobtrusive overlays of text messages, video chats and time stamps to convey the passage of time, Nancy's increasingly dire situation and the connections to the outside world that keep her determined to stay alive. The opening gives just enough back story to make Nancy into a recognizable person that you'd rather not see get eaten by a shark, although the movie gives in to some sentimental moments toward the end (and the epilogue is completely corny and unnecessary). The movie also gives in to some typical shark-movie shock moments, although they are handled so effectively that it's not too hard to forgive them.
Things eventually get a little too silly, but Lively keeps her character grounded even when she's performing essentially superhuman feats against a giant deadly shark. Some of the CGI effects can be a little shaky, but the mostly minimalist style means that the effects don't have to do too much of the work. It's only in the big confrontations that the limitations really show. For shark-movie aficionados, The Shallows is proof that this genre doesn't have to be just campy nonsense or inept cash-ins. The inherent fear and danger in nature, in an unpredictable deadly animal, is a real and visceral force that a good movie can tap into, and for a large part of its running time, The Shallows does just that.