An offshore facility that contains genetically enhanced sharks meant for amnesia research, sharks in tornados, giant sharks, freshwater sharks, sharks in the snow, and robot sharks in space (probably): Since Jaws swept audiences away in the summer of 1975, shark movies have more or less followed the mantra that bigger is better. Such films either forget or ignore the foundation laid by Steven Spielberg, who proved that less can be more, that the unseen can be more terrifying than what is seen; or they just fail to recognize the fact that the Great White shark, with its rows and rows of razor sharp teeth and a nose for blood, is a living, breathing embodiment of fear just the way God created—no bells, no whistles. And that is precisely why The Shallows, a sleek little film quietly swimming on the scene in a season packed full with a chum bucket of brainless big-budget action flicks (I’m looking at you, Warcraft), is such a welcome breath of fresh air for the genre. It’s a film that knows its roots and isn’t afraid to maintain this humble conceit, even as it instills new life in an old formula and reminds us hat there’s still some bite left in shark tales.
Staying true to creature feature tropes, The Shallows opens with a scene of death, but it’s told via GoPro, placing the viewer directly in the path of a swimming vehicle of destruction. More than just a bit of carnage to whet our collective appetites, however, this slice of found footage also introduces us to the film’s protagonist. The last thing we hear before the footage ends is Nancy (Blake Lively) screaming, and so as the film begins we are left wondering whether or not she survives the attack. From there we move back in time, journeying with Nancy to a secluded beach where she seeks to reconnect with her past. Through a series of photographs we learn that Nancy’s mother swam on this beach when she was pregnant with her, and that she recently passed away. For Nancy, then, this surf carries with it deep emotional significance. At first all is well. The beach is breathtakingly beautiful, the waves are great (or gnarly), and the locals are friendly. But then a spine-tingling set of circumstances bring Nancy face-to-face with one of the world’s most formidable predators, and she finds herself in a fight for her life.
Director Jaume Collet-Serra utilizes a single setting to its maximum potential in The Shallows; it’s basically a claustrophobia film out in the open, which is a remarkably frightening thing to consider. The whole world is laid bare before her, but Nancy simply has nowhere to go. So she clings to a rock, a buoy—every small, cramped surface sticking out of the water is a temporary source of salvation, a refuge from the constantly-circling terror below. Wide angle shots and a panning camera serve as a constant reminder that Nancy is completely alone. Of course, a number of shots and scenes pay homage to Spielberg’s genre-defining work as well. At one point we find ourselves sitting on the bottom of the ocean looking at an unwitting surfer swimming above, the sunlight creating a haunting silhouette. Later a shark attack unfolds, and the camera stays firmly planted on one character’s horrified reaction; in an act of mature filmmaking, Collet-Serra lets his audience work out the gory details on its own. Again, less is often more.
In addition, swimming just below the surface of The Shallows is a (not terribly subtle) subtext that helps the film withstand multiple viewings. The shark itself can be read as a manifestation of the emotional trauma and baggage in Nancy’s life. Her internal struggle to process the loss of a family member is personified by a bloodthirsty predator. And isn’t that exactly the potential our fears, anxieties, and heartache-filled pasts hold? They threaten to cripple us, pull us under, and ultimately consume us. At the heart of The Shallows, then, is a search for something or someone greater than this leviathan. Although it is by no means a perfect film (and there are a couple of scenes and beats that don’t work as well as they should), The Shallows is more than enough to make you afraid of the water once again.