There is a certain modest genius to a well-crafted disaster film. Unfussy and unpretentious, the best of these keep the proceedings simple, but their apparent simplicity can cloak the care with which plot details are placed and timed, the way individual moments correspond to each other. Like all magic, you don’t even know you’ve been fooled until it’s too late. The Shallows is just such a trick. Taken in context, it’s the best movie of the summer, maybe the year. Taken on its own terms, The Shallows is a small masterpiece.
Yes, the thing with Blake Lively and a CGI shark is possibly the best movie of the year so far.
Of the many genre virtues The Shallows boasts, and there are several, the most crucial is its single-minded narrative. A young woman (Lively) is just out of medical school, and she’s also a surfer looking for some solace and time for reflection after her mom’s recent death. She goes in search of a secret beach where the waves are the stuff of legend. Her friend bails on her, so she ends up taking the journey alone. A shark attacks her, stranding her on a small, isolated rock, injured but just 200 yards from shore. But it’s a long 200 yards. With just resourcefulness and a will to survive, she has to determine an escape path. That’s it.
Director Jaume Collet-Serra times everything perfectly. Early, kinetic POV shots emphasize Lively’s joy in motion – the surfing footage is a lot of fun, even if you could care less about surfing and might consider the notion that people actively seek out such dangers a bit insane – but there’s also a lingering sense that she’s desperately trying to keep private sorrow at bay.
These shots are intercut with a decidedly more ominous, underwater POV, ratcheting up tension out of nothing but the contrast. Lively is charming and capable, but very, very much alone – especially after the only other people she meets depart. Collet-Serra alternates between tight close-ups and gorgeous aerial shots, full of color and wonder at the beauty of the surroundings, but methodically and skillfully increasing our awareness of how small this person really is, and how vast is the world in which she’s placed herself. Even in these early moments, and without mimicking the hammering musical cues of the film to which it will inevitably be compared, The Shallows keeps you on edge.
Nothing in screenwriter Anthony Jaswinski’s resume hints at the economy and skilled compression of his excellent script. There is no detail that doesn’t have its payoff, but it never feels hacky. (Well, almost never: more on that in a minute.) Instead, Jaswinski simply seems to know exactly how to layer a small, simple story – if the camera zooms in on some aspect of the frame, we know it will have import. We pay attention.
As the only person on screen for nearly the entirety of The Shallows, Lively simply has to carry it. She succeeds. Her resolute insistence on survival, its grounding in character detail, and her capability to cheat certain death all ring true. She’s an impressive lead here, a sort of self-reliant female corollary to Matt Damon’s character in The Martian. Sure, it’s a bit handy that she just got out of med school directly prior to having to treat her battered body in the middle of the ocean, but lots of people go to med school. Why not? In any case, she nails the role.
Collet-Serra – the Liam Neeson vehicle vet who made, among other things, a previous genre masterpiece (Non-Stop), a stinker (Unknown), the underrated horror flick Orphan, and whatever House of Wax was supposed to be – is at peak form here. He occasionally relies a bit too much on the integration of every digital technique he can manage: instead of Non-Stop’s text messages, we get Skype calls and a Go-Pro headcam. But his astute visual sense combines a mastery of framing and a real love of color and shadow. The Shallows is not some sort of Citizen Kane: The Shark Years, but it’s precisely what it needs to be to work best. Even more: it’s legitimately thrilling and beautiful.
The film stumbles in its final moments into arguable hackiness, with a coda no one asked for or needed. But it’s a small price to pay for the most engaging and accomplished genre picture in years. When people dismissed The Shallows out of hand before its release, as though it were going to be Sharknado with (more) boobs, there was more than a whiff of sexism about the whole thing. Time will be much kinder to The Shallows than those who dismissed it sight unseen.
If you enjoy well-plotted, well-paced, exciting films with visual flair and solid performances – and you really should – go see The Shallows on the screen.