The Shallows takes a fresh look at familiar shark-infested film territory
Ever the helpful website, Wikipedia has a convenient list of all shark attack movies since 1975, along with the type of terrorizing shark. It is a quick, entertaining read that can lead you into a rabbit hole of weird plots and ideas that really put into context just how cartoony sharks have become as natural antagonists in horror film.
Great white sharks are the most popular man eater in these films, but truly innovative directors have branched out to include mutated humanoid sharks (1981’s Creature), prehistoric sharks swimming in snow (2011’s Avalanche Sharks), great white sharks in supermarkets (2012’s Bait 3D) and the ever popular waterspouts full of sharks from the Sharknado quadrilogy.
Horror movie directors are sometimes derided for occupying a dark space in filmmaking, but in reality they are nothing if not downright silly. 1975’s Jaws remains essential viewing for anyone who loves movies, featuring the first truly terrifying look into the lifeless, black eyes of the marine apex predator. It’s hard to improve upon perfection.
However, this summer’s shark film The Shallows might be the first film to come close. It does this by not attempting to recreate or borrow from what made Jaws so good. Instead, it tells its own story, treading closer to reality than fantasy. Simplicity is always preferable when building suspense and The Shallows succeeds much more than it fails.
Blake Lively plays Nancy, a med student from Texas who recently lost her mother to cancer. To deal with her grief, Nancy leaves her father and sister and future career behind to find a secret, secluded beach in Mexico her mother once visited when she was younger. She aims to surf the waves and honor the memory of her mother before deciding whether to pursue her chosen path in life or abandon it for something less futile.
The film wastes little time getting Nancy into the water—the backstory is woven into the narrative well enough without becoming exposition heavy. While her character arc isn’t necessarily the most compelling (plenty of people go to Mexico to surf without needing to exorcise their demons), it would have been easy for the filmmakers to sacrifice any attempt at character development for massive amounts of bloody carnage, so these small details allow the audience to connect to the character, thus amplifying the suspense. That Nancy has a medical background is certainly a plot contrivance, but ultimately a forgivable one.
The first few water scenes play like an extreme sports music video, but as Nancy’s surf companions head in for the day and Nancy heads out one more time to catch a final wave, something happens that sets The Shallows apart from other films of its type.
One of the biggest criticisms of Jaws is its complete misreading of shark behavior. Hooper, the marine biologist played by Richard Dreyfuss, describes the killer shark as “a perfect engine, an eating machine.” Peter Benchly, author of the book the film is based on, regrets how he depicted the great white because it led to such negative attitudes towards the creatures, possible aiding in the depletion of their population worldwide.
Great white sharks in general have no interest in humans as food—attacks are always accidental by the shark mistaking humans for prey. The Shallows deals with this new mentality by having our victim encounter the shark in the middle of a feeding frenzy due to a dying whale around 200 meters offshore.
Of course, it all but abandons the idea later in the film by having the shark stalk Nancy for hours despite having unlimited meat just a few yards away. The film tries to explain this away by showing the shark as having a history of violent encounters with humans, and as we learned from Jaws: The Revenge, sharks hold grudges (shark movie idea: Jaws—The Grudge. Ghost shark meets Japanese horror film).
Still, the film stays away from many of the clichés that riddle this particular genre, focusing more on the survival aspect than the shark itself. At times it reminded me of 2003’s Open Water, a film that was unique but ultimately dull.
The Shallows took a premise that had said farewell and adieu long ago and breathed life back into it by telling a somewhat plausible story and dialing down the silliness. It’s not Jaws but nothing ever will be. This film, however, is likely the best shark film since.