By Travis Trombley
The Shallows is a minimal, tense, action-heavy hero’s journey wrapped in a beautiful yet terrifying shark survival film. Despite its triumphs, though, the film isn’t without sins, chiefest among which being not trusting itself to convey information and development without expositional dialogue.
The film stars Blake Lively as Nancy, about whom simple exposition reveals a few insights before people start getting eaten: she dropped out of medical school, her mom lost her fight with cancer, and she’s in a state of personal limbo, preferring to surf her problems away rather than wrestle with an existential disillusionment with medicine or - in general - fighting to survive. Almost all of the film’s 87 minutes focus on Lively’s bikini-clad form, though not in a gratuitous manner (as some of the advertising for the film may have viewers believe). Lively (and her makeup crew) gets props for her acting here, shouldering the film well with appropriate grimaces and stares of determination alike.
Aside from a few one-dimensional locals, most of whom end up as shark-snacks, the film co-stars a rock (the pedestal upon which Lively spends a bulk of the film), a rusty buoy, a bird-companion wonderfully named Steven ‘Seagull,’ a floating whale carcass, an idyllic beach, and Bruce from Finding Nemo. This is all just a long-winded way of saying this is a film about Nancy and the world around her.
In many ways, the film’s minimalism is a celebration of beauty: the camera loves Lively and the environment around her equally. The first twenty minutes of the film play out like a pastoral poem celebrating nature and the simple surfer’s life with sun shining through palm trees, islands that form the shape of a pregnant woman, and picturesque waves of crystal clear water that’s as gorgeous in its own right as it is for showcasing the kaleidoscopic ocean floor. A mix of extreme camera angles (top-down panoramics to board-mounted close-ups) and clever use of sound (silence when Nancy dives beneath the waves and energetic island beats when above water) add a sense of artistic nuance to the natural beauty of the setting.
Sadly, it’s at this point that the film - as Matt Zoller Seitz said in his review for rogerebert.com - seems to lose faith in its minimalism. Nancy’s having to record a personal epiphany on a GoPro for her family is the film’s way of making sure that she’s growing as a person - it doesn’t trust us to get that on our own. Even the excessive CGI shark shots at the film’s end (we know the shark hits the buoy when it rocks to the side, we do not need to see a forced depiction below the water to tell us) feels unwelcome, trading the survival tension feel for something more akin to a Tomb Raider cutscene. These feel like intrusions upon something that could have been more by doing less, the very tactic to which Mad Max: Fury Road owes its success.
Upon the movie’s release, one commenter griped something along the lines of not needing to see a character learn a life lesson or develop personally in order to survive a near-death experience, which Nancy indeed does as a result of facing off against the shark - having to survive helps her appreciate her mom’s fight with cancer, despite her loss of that fight. There’s some merit to this, but in the case of The Shallows, such frustration should be pointed at the film’s over-telling in regards to this character arc, not it’s presence.
A rival to Jaws this film is not, though it’s mostly as good, if not better in a number of respects. Given the increasingly superior quality of television shows and Netflix series (any of Marvel’s Netflix shows compete with the best of its cinematic installments), films like The Shallows - especially if it had backed off from its exposition - will most likely come to define thriller cinema in the near future: condensed, beautiful, thoughtful blockbuster action.