The Shallows is, above all else, a tight movie. It knows what it is, and what it is is an under 90 minutes long, single character, ticking-clock shark movie, and it doesn’t try to be anything other than the best single character, ticking-clock shark movie it can be. And it succeeds.
Unsure of her purpose in life, and still mourning her mother’s death from cancer, Nancy (Blake Lively) goes an out-of-the-way beach in Mexico to surf her problems away. She gets bitten by a shark and stranded on a small reef just far enough away from the beach to be an issue, and that’s only above the water level during low-tide, putting her on a ticking-clock to get back to land before the shark can eat her. Perfect, very simple, no frills, ‘nuff said.
Instead of adding plot, everything else the movie does adds flavor. Nancy’s medical school experience helps her treat the initial shark-bite and rationalize the pain away as much as possible. A seagull she names Steven provides just enough companionship for her to bounce lines off of, “save the cat,” and endearingly squawk and shake his head at key moments. Nancy’s waterproof watch acts as a literal countdown near the climax. And pretty much every other human in the movie exists to show us the shark means business.
What makes this movie worth the under 90 minutes and however much money you’re spending to see it is how wonderfully director Jaume Collet-Serra and cinematographer Flavio Labiano play with the few toys they’ve given themselves. Having learned from other shark movies, The Shallows plays coy with its monster, showing us mostly his fin, or his shadow under the water as he circles around Nancy’s rock. They turn a rock and a buoy into their own complete locations, and chum the water just enough so that every new development feels like Nancy’s last hope of surviving. It’s masterful with its suspense, and like the best horror movies, will make you want to scream at characters to get out of the water, or swim just a little faster.
The Shallows gives us a great delicious eyeful of the beach and its beautiful blue waters to really make us miss it when it’ all dyed red. The same goes for Nancy. The camera early on ogles the blonde-haired, blue-eyed, than, thin, surfer babe much as you’d expect from most guys; but doesn’t turn away when she gets bruised, sliced open, and gangrenous.
There are also a number of just draw-dropping shots: the silhouette of the shark swimming through a wave as Nancy unwittingly surfs past it, Nancy swimming through a fluther of jellyfish, or a victim of the shark crawling up the beach – away from the separated bottom half of his body.
Being the only real character in the movie, Blake Lively’s performance predictably carries much of the movie, and she literally stretches herself to the limit. Her tall, toned frame becomes as much a prop as anything in the movie, as she grasps towards anything she could use to help her out of her predicament and towards whatever next stepping-stone brings her closer to land.
The Shallows doesn’t over-extend itself past its simple, elegant premise, and never really has to. This isn’t a pretentious movie, or a complicated movie, and is barely about anything. It’s a shark movie, and it’s an expertly crafted, tightly wound shark movie, and if it gets a little silly at the end, it totally earns it.