I always feel sorry for sharks. They are ancient, fascinating creatures, perfectly adapted to their environment and highly instinctual. Yet when it comes to cinema they are always portrayed as nothing more than swimming psychopaths with a malicious anti-human agenda. Opening with this seems somewhat like I’m playing devil’s advocate, but it’s necessary because I found The Shallows to be quite an excellent film and I’m trying desperately to find things to criticise.
The Shallows is a textbook example of a simple idea done well. It takes the shark-attack genre, which ever since Jaws has effectively been done to death, and manages to breathe new life into it through numerous means. The cinematography is absolutely gorgeous, from the stunning locations, to the use of colour to the slow-motion effects. This last is used very frequently but appropriately, used to create either tension or excitement depending on the scene, as opposed to just randomly jamming it in wherever possible (the Zack Snyder school of creativity). The tension is well done, with the director making use of the concept that a monster is much scarier the less we see it, allowing us to view the horror at times purely through the reactions of the character. The main and (arguably only) character, Nancy, is played brilliantly by Blake Lively, who having nobody to work with (besides the occasional seagull) has to pull out all the acting stops in order to convey the horror, fatigue and hopelessness of her situation.
The situation in the film is indeed hopeless, and considerably more so than the film would have you believe, which leads me to probably my biggest problem with this film. Now, I am more than happy with suspension of disbelief, but when a film that makes use of modern technology such as Go-Pros to add realism to the plot, the credibility does rather undo itself. The use of technological gimmicks is quite distracting in the opening scenes. I’d love to know what kind of network has nearly flawless internet coverage in the middle of the Mexican jungle to allow for video communication, and given the anti-technological comments made by Nancy’s guide in their drive through the jungle, these gimmicks do nothing but distract. Additionally, while Nancy’s motivations to fight and survive are sound and fitting with her character, the brutality of her situation makes her determination less credible. Do not expect us to believe that somebody can survive for at least 36 hours without water, slowly bleeding to death and still have the mental wherewithal to evade and ultimately kill a great white shark in its natural habitat.
Despite these obligatory nitpicks, The Shallows is a very enjoyable film and packs enough punch to keep you entertained throughout. Survival-horror thrillers aren’t usually my cup of tea, but this film is so well presented that it makes for very compelling viewing. The standard seductive camera-angles are all over this, with Nancy not even managing to zip up her wetsuit top for the sake of eye-candy, but this is used cleverly to emphasize her later injuries, particularly when the gangrene kicks in. Suspension of disbelief is key throughout, but it’s a small price to pay for some fine acting and nail-biting suspense. Just don’t go googling shark attacks afterwards, because it doesn’t help you sleep better.