Here’s something I did not expect to say: The Shallows is pretty good. I know, right? I was surprised I like it, too. But The Shallows, aka Blake Lively vs. A Shark, is a solid B-movie. It’s effectively scary and sort of stylish, and Blake Lively isn’t horrible. In a better movie season it probably wouldn’t draw much notice, but this summer has been particularly brutal, so The Shallows sticks out as a high note.
Director Jaume Collet-Serra, taking a break from Liam Neeson revenge movies, gets back to his horror roots—he broke out with the horror flick Orphan—with The Shallows. It’s a spare survival story about a woman trapped on a rock while a shark circles her. And that is pretty much the whole movie. There’s an attempt to add some depth and backstory by introducing a subplot in which the protagonist is contemplating quitting medical school after her mother has died, but no one ever gives a sh*t about that. Seriously, when was the last time you were watching a thriller and you thought, “You know what would be great? If we ground completely to a halt so that this character can reminisce about her childhood. That’s what I really want to see in this movie about a town besieged by a swarm of angry bees.”
Blake Lively plays Nancy—when was the last time you met anyone under 40 named Nancy? I call bullsh*t on this name (Lainey: me too!)—a med school dropout who’s in Mexico to visit a beach where her mother went one time. Nancy is there to surf and Contemplate Future Things, which is represented by Lively staring blankly into the middle distance. The beginning of the movie is a little rough because Blake Lively can’t act and this is the part of the movie that requires her to be interesting as a person and not potential shark food.
But then Nancy arrives at the beach, which is gorgeous. Collet-Serra and his director of photography, Flavio Martinez Labiano (The Gunman, Non-Stop), capture some really stunning images throughout the movie. It’s part of what makes The Shallows work—it’s a great looking movie. Collet-Serra changes up his shot selection enough to keep the visuals interesting, combining aerials, panoramas, hand-held work, and underwater photography. We don’t actually see the shark all that much, and we don’t need to because the camera does a solid job inducing dread.
This movie is f*cking ridiculous, but it’s not trying to be anything other than a B-grade thriller, and it’s good at being a B-grade thriller. From the moment of the first shark attack, the tension ratchets up steadily. Marco Beltrami’s score is a little aggressive, but then, The Shallows is not a subtle movie. Beltrami’s thumping score fits right in with Blake Lively shrieking, which is 90% of the dialogue track. To be fair to Lively, though, she has a great horror movie scream. And once she’s stranded and fighting the shark, she’s pretty effective. She does her best acting one emotion at a time.
As for the “empathy gap” Lainey referenced in the intro the other day—oh, it’s totally noticeable. More screen time is given to the seagull sharing Nancy’s rock than to any of her would-be saviors, and because of that med school subplot this can’t just be a basic survival tale, it has to be about Learning Lessons and Life Affirmation, which makes Nancy something of a ghoulish misery tourist whose mere presence gets everyone around her killed.
There are so few characters in The Shallows that when only one of them is given anything resembling a life, it’s very apparent. And it’s not like these guys have to be great Shakespearian figures, one memorable trait would be nice. The seagull is sassy, but I can’t remember anything about anyone not named Blake Lively except that they were shark food.
The Shallows is a solid B-movie that doesn’t pretend to be anything other than a B-movie. That goes a long way in a summer movie season in which several big budget blockbusters have overreached and failed. Compared to the mind-numbing boredom of a movie like Independence Day: Resurgence, or the low of X-Men: Apocalypse, The Shallows is charmingly quaint. It’s a well-made movie that achieves its goal of making you afraid of the ocean. There’s something to be said for modest ambitions executed well.