Filled with blood, (whale) guts, and preposterous amounts of bravery, The Shallows is the first shark thriller in a decade or more to deliver on its promise of fun, white-knuckle entertainment. It’s also incredibly silly at times, but that’s besides the point. In a time where original ideas are few and far between, this one-off adventure created without the hope or possibility of launching a franchise more than delivers on its promises, and it offers further proof Blake Lively is still a star on the rise.
Nancy Adams (Lively) is having a hard time dealing with the recent death of her mother. In an attempt to heal, Nancy flees the safety of her home in Texas and her enrollment in medical school to visit a secret beach in Mexico where her mother supposedly surfed on the day she found out she was pregnant. It’s a quiet strip of sand and sea far from any city or paved roads, and none of the locals are willing to share its name for fear Nancy might tell tourists about her discovery. She doesn’t mind the secrecy so much, as the sight of the land her mother once cherished is enough to make her feel closer to her mom than she has in ages. It also doesn’t hurt that the surf is particularly good when she arrives, or that the local men do not seem at all interested in hitting on her.
After several hours of surfing alongside two locals—one of whom is wearing a helmet with a GoPro strapped to his head—Nancy finds herself alone just as the sun is beginning to set. She plans to ride one more wave, but as she gets to her feet a powerful force from under the water knocks her into the water. Before she knows what is happening Nancy feels a tug, then a bite in her upper thigh, and soon she’s swimming for her life from a shark measuring at least ten feet in length. The shore is hundreds of yards away, so Nancy seeks shelter on a rock that is only visible when the tide is low. There, as night falls, she begins a fight for survival that blends together elements of Cast Away, The Revenant, and (of course) Jaws, that will require the use of every bit of water knowledge and medical training she has ever received in order to defeat the monster hiding under the water.
Lively is front and center in every single frame of The Shallows, which offers her ample time to showcase her versatile acting chops. Whether she’s lost in the beauty of her surroundings, struggling to hide her emotions from her worried father via FaceTime, or clinging to life as blood loss and dehydration begin to take their toll, Lively delivers some of her best work to date. There is far more for her to do in this film than her last leading effort (2015’s well-meaning, but ultimately mediocre Age Of Adeline) despite the fact she’s largely confined to a very small amount of space with little to no mobility throughout the film. It’s her charisma and the fight you see in her eyes that makes The Shallows something to remember, and in the end every shortcoming found in the narrative is not enough to discredit the work she delivers.
The direction of Jaume Collet-Serra and the cinematography of Flavio Martínez Labiano—last seen paired in 2014’s Liam Neeson airplane thriller Non-Stop—also shines in this film. The combined talents of these two add a layer of beauty to The Shallows rarely seen in monster movies. And before you try to say this isn’t a monster movie, it is. Collet-Serra and Labiano tell Anthony Jaswinski’s story as if they were telling a tale of any number of mythical beasts, from Godzilla to the aliens found in Independence Day. Viewers don’t even see a clear shot of the shark until halfway through the film, and even then the sighting is momentary. It’s the fear of the unknown that drives the story of The Shallows, and that constant tension is made all the more impactful by a key decision from Labiano to let the camera frequently sit at sea level, bobbing above and below the water as waves pass. You see more than most shark films would ever allow, yet you never know where or when the next encounter might occur.
Any movie that demands audiences accept the notion that someone with no experience battling a certain type of monster can somehow defeat that beast using only their mind and the things around them while fighting with each breath to stay alive is bound to have some inherently silly turns, and The Shallows is no different. That said, I would be lying if I told you I was anything less than a ball of stress and anxiety throughout my initial viewing. Lively’s performance sells the fear of the unknown as few modern day actors could, and the work by those behind the camera is just as compelling. As far as I am concerned, The Shallows is the best thriller we’ve seen this year, and it seems unlikely that anything will take its crown before snow begins to fall.