Director – Jaume Collet-Serra, Screenplay – Anthony Jaswinski, Producers – Lynn Harris & Matti Leshem, Photography – Flavio Martinez-Labiano, Music – Marco Beltrami, Visual Effects Supervisor – Scott E. Anderson, Visual Effects – Digital Sandbox, Hammerhead Productions (Supervisors – Mark Dippe & Seungyong Lee), Important Looking Pirates (Supervisor – Niklas Jacobson & Joakim Johansson), Legend VFX (Supervisor – Andrew Jerez), Mammal Studios, Mels (Supervisor – Jonathan Piche Delorme), MPC, Notorious Visual Effects (Supervisor – Nathan McGuinness), Oblique, Scanline VFX, Soho VFX (Supervisor – Allen Magled) & Spin VFX (Supervisor – Wes Sewell), Special Effects Supervisor – Brian Cox, Makeup Effects – Jason Baird & Sean Genders, Production Design – Hugh Bateup. Production Company – Weimaraner Republic Pictures/Ombra Films.
Blake Lively (Nancy Adams), Oscar Jaenada (Carlos), Brett Cullen (Father), Sedona Legge (Chloe)
Nancy Adams, a med student from Texas, is in Mexico in search of a secret beach that her late mother visited. Finding it, Nancy spends the afternoon surfing. As the sun is setting, Nancy goes for one last wave only to be attacked and bitten by a shark. Bleeding from a leg wound, she takes refuge on an outcrop of rock. From there with nothing on her person, she attempts to patch the wound and attract help or get back to the beach but must deal with the shark still prowling in the water.
I didn’t have high expectations of The Shallows before sitting down to watch. Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra had not done huge amounts to instill me with hope. I had liked his first film for Dark Castle House of Wax (2005) but film indifferent to his follow-up Orphan (2009), although it has good notices elsewhere. Thereafter Collet-Serra seemed to abandon genre material for making formulaic mainstream action films with the likes of Unknown (2011), Non-Stop (2014), Run All Night (2015) and The Commuter (2018). Collet-Serra subsequently went on to make the Disney theme park adaptation Jungle Cruise (2021).
Any film that sets out to enter the killer shark genre suffers a problem. And that is that the film that created the sub-genre, Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975), remains without question the unsurpassed best effort in the field. Jaws delivered a classic story that contained such powerhouse suspense that no other film among the numerous imitators since has come anywhere close to touching it. Nor have any of the imitators done anything substantially different with the basic shark hunting people in a boat scenario.
The sole effort that has done anything to differentiate this was the spate of films that began with Shark in Venice (2008) and Mega Shark vs Giant Octopus (2009) before peaking with the bad movie classic Sharknado (2013) and sequels. These and the films that followed seem to be in a competition to come up with the most ridiculous title collusions or places that a shark can be introduced to as witness titles such as 2-Headed Shark Attack (2012), Jersey Shore Shark Attack (2012), Avalanche Sharks (2013), 90210 Shark Attack (2014), Roboshark (2015 ), Zombie Shark (2015), Sharkansas Women’s Prison Massacre (2016) et al.
Against the tide of these gonzo shark films that has overwhelmed screens in recent years, The Shallows has a commendable bravery for making a shark film and expecting audiences to still take it seriously. It is not too hard remember back a couple of years to how badly Bait (2012) flopped at trying to do a serious killer shark film (although that may have had something to do with the decision to set the action inside a supermarket).
The Shallows does all of these things – it tries to do something original with the shark movie, it tries to give Steven Spielberg a run for his money and it takes itself seriously against the prevailing trend of the non-serious shark film. You have to applaud the ambition in doing so and give the film kudos in that it largely succeeds at all of these. Jaws and all of the films that came after it are essentially monster movies in which a group of intrepid fighters tackle something that is attacking people in and around the town. In Jaws, you get the sense of men fighting less a wild animal than they are pitting their wits against a monster that has a ferocious cunning and intelligence.
By contrast to these, The Shallows falls more into being a survival film along the lines of something like Frozen (2010) or 127 Hours (2010), which specialise in trapping the central protagonist(s) in some tight or remote locale – under a rock, on a ski chairlift and, as here, on a tiny rock outcropping as the tide is rising. Perhaps the nearest you could compare The Shallows to is Open Water (2003), which was about two people returning from a diving expedition who were left stranded in a sea of sharks, or the Australian The Reef (2010) about survivors of a shipwreck in shark-infested waters. It is not that The Shallows doesn’t characterise its shark as a fiendish monster that has to be outwitted but it is more that the focus of the story is Blake Lively’s survival on the outcropping, having to deal with a gashed leg and improvise medical help without any implements, trying to signal for help, or retrieve a floating GoPro camera out of the water.
House of Wax excepted, Jaume Collet-Serra’s previous films had left me cold and I wasn’t expecting too many great things from The Shallows. As a result, I was greatly surprised. Collet-Serra gives the film everything he can think of in his cinematic arsenal – underwater photography, point-of-view shots from GoPro cameras, text and video messenger windows opening up on screen. I have never had any interest in surfing but the way that film crafts the shots of people cresting waves, riding tubes, swimming into the rising undercurrent from under the water, awe-inspiring CGI shots of the shadow of a shark appearing inside a wave, it looks sensational, while the sped-up, slowed-down action shots gives the experience a genuine kinetic kick. The photography of the locations (in actuality all around Lord Howe Island, Australia as opposed to Mexico) have a ravishing picture postcard beauty.
In its trapping Blake Lively aboard a tiny outcropping (that is getting smaller and smaller as the tide rises until she is in water up to her chest) and then aboard an equally small buoy, the film ratchets up an incredible degree of nail-biting tension. Collet-Serra goes for every dramatic flourish he can – Blake navigating a sea of jellyfish, her being battered and overturned on the seabed, the shark gnashing and tearing through a coral reef, jump in the seat shots of it leaping out of the water to devour surfers, and an incredibly tense climax with the shark tearing apart the buoy as Blake Lively desperately tries to cling to some kind of refuge. The tensions that Collet-Serra generates are nail-bitingly on the edge – all big flourishes pulled off with a cinematic bravura that leaves you applauding the craftsmanship, artistry and the adrenalin workout that you have been placed through.