Shark movies are curious things. On a quality spectrum between, say, Steven Spielberg's 1975 classic Jaws and the infamous Sharknado series that began in 2013, it seems that when the latest shark movie arrives, it tends to lean closer towards the latter, diving head on into stupidity in a way that has given rise to films with obvious titles like Sharktopus, Jurassic Shark, Sand Sharks, and - lest we forget - Ghost Shark over the past few years alone that have done their best to rob the sub-genre of any chance at reclaiming any bit of integrity.
Now and then, though, a shark film comes along that works to some degree; films that can't reach the bar set by Jaws - and honestly, none ever will - but look like shining diamonds in comparison to films such as those I just listed, thanks to taking their subject matter seriously and honing in on the primal fear many of us would have being set adrift in the domain of one of nature's finest killing machines. Films like Open Water and The Reef have capitalized on this very notion to great effect, treating sharks as dangerous but respectable threats rather than resorting to using them as part of some eye-rolling gimmick.
All this rambling leads us to The Shallows, the latest human vs. shark film to actually ascend from the depths of the genre's made-for-TV trappings and onto to the big screen. Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, the film serves somewhat as a return to horror form for the director whose last horror effort was 2009's Orphan, having spent the years since directing Liam Neeson in various thrillers.
The basic setup is simple: A young surfer named Nancy (Blake Lively) travels to a secluded beach looking to spiritually reconnect with the mother she lost, only for a shark to turn up and throw a wrench into her plans. After being attacked, Nancy ends up stranded and bleeding out on a rock barely 200 yards from safety, and with the inevitability of high tide on the way putting a ticking clock on how long she can depend on her new safe haven, she has to figure out a way to outsmart the shark waiting for another chance at her if she wants to survive.
From there, the less one knows going into the film, the better, as the narrative strengths really come from seeing how Nancy uses what she has at her disposal - her basic instincts, her knowledge as a med student, and even a scene-stealing seagull - to make it through her predicament. Watching how she copes when things go from bad to worse is part of the fun, and Collet-Serra does a fantastic job of selling the character's isolation and stacking the odds against her in a way that challenges the audience to question whether or not they, too, could have the mental and physical fortitude to survive in such a situation.
Though there are a few supporting players throughout the film, it's solely Nancy's story, and Blake Lively steps up admirably to make her feel like a real human being rather than just a prop to be abused. Considering that she has to carry the film almost entirely on her shoulders, it's up to her to get viewers on her side from the get-go lest they be forced to spend an hour and a half struggling to root for a character they don't like, and thankfully she succeeds in igniting the spark needed behind Nancy's arc across the film, effortlessly going from soul-searching optimist to terrified and hopeless victim to determined fighter without missing a beat.
As for the shark itself - undeniably the big draw here - it's brought to life through a great mix of impressive practical and CGI effects, lending a real presence to the unpredictable animal every time it swims by or makes a move. And while its obsession with getting its meal may tend to cross into serial killer territory now and again the longer the film goes on, its easy to overlook and even begin to justify thanks to a prominent visual touch that suggests the shark itself may rightfully have more to be angry about than its prey being a hassle.
If anything, the film is full of amazing imagery. It's a beautifully shot film, with Collet-Serra and cinematographer Flavio Labiano giving the events a colorful, vibrant backdrop against which to unfold, and one worth lauding for that fact when it could have easily been draped in dreary blacks and blues. Even the end, pre-scroll credits benefit from breaking away from the standard horror palette.
On the surface, The Shallows is a simple film, but bubbling underneath there's a lot at work that help make said simplicity a breath of fresh air. From an engaging narrative to an effective lead to being one of the best-looking horror/thrillers in recent memory, it's a success, and the fact that it leans more towards Jaws on the spectrum between that classic and the sub-genre's dreck should be enough to motivate anyone looking for a good summer thrill to check it out.
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