Sometimes, there’s nothing like a good bit of fun at the movies, and for that, you can’t beat the summer, nor can you beat The Shallows, a movie that aims for right above the low-brow and hits it dead-on.
It’s a premise as old as the blockbuster itself. There’s a shark who’s particularly pissed off and hungry, and there are humans in its way. This time, the human in the way of its cavernous maw is Nancy Adams (Blake Lively), a medical student searching out a private beach where her late mother went to decades before. Turns out that going to a private beach isn’t a great idea when the shark attacks and strands her in the ocean with no apparent hope of rescue and only her wits to survive with.
Director Jaume Collett-Serra has made a play for being the king of studio B-movie filmmaking with House of Wax, Orphan, and now The Shallows officially rests as his coronation. Collett-Serra has proven that he’s not just good, but exceptional at the simplest pleasures of thriller filmmaking. His control of the camera and the scene and most importantly the audience is exceptional, always aware of what his scene is doing and guiding them to the exact reaction.
One of the oldest tactics in horror is the jump scare, achieved by a series of safe shots that lead to the “unsafe” shot, where the thing jumps out at you. Collett-Serra uses that psychological effect with a series of POV swimming camera shots. So much of the way the film is shot appears to be from the perspective of something swimming under the water that it’s almost playful. He knows he’s putting the audience on edge and you can almost hear him cackle when there’s a rare unsafe shot. It’s prime “bomb under the table that we know is there” filmmaking.
It’s even the little creative measures. I’ve never seen a filmmaker better integrate tech into a movie that really didn’t need it. The Skype calls and the stopwatch overlays are almost entirely flavor touches, but they really do create a more real world. Plus, it creates a literal ticking clock during a few sequences.
The guy even knows how to work animals into it! The film’s most delightful touch is an animal companion Steven Seagull (Steven Seagull), who’s an adorable seagull that gives a small touch of empathetic nature in the middle of a whole lot of horrible nature.
But the whole thing is also helped by the fact that Blake Lively is surprisingly game/up to the challenge. She turns in a remarkable physical performance that really does help carry the film. She exudes charisma and makes every bit of pain and struggle feel real.
The sort of film you really don’t see released wide anymore, something built on a simple premise and a star, a call-back to the 80s action flicks like Commando (not directly, but more in spirit) or the dying days of the star system like Cast Away. There’s a certain simple joy in watching someone we like try to survive in a thrilling situation.
Does it matter then that the film has about as much substance as the bikini that Blake Lively is shoved into? Or that there’s more than a few moments that need you to just say “Sure, why not?” Not really. It keeps it from the pantheon of the greats, but it’s still a hell of a thrill-ride. It’s a roller coaster with no line. Get in, ride it quick, feel the rush, then move on to the next one. And who doesn’t love a good roller coaster from time to time?