The set-up of The Shallows is simple: Nancy, a woman surfer, is attacked by a shark and has found refuge on a small rock in the middle of the sea, just 200 torturous yards away from a Mexican shore. Severely wounded, she has to figure out how to call for help or get back to the shore, while the shark lurks around, waiting for high tide to engulf the rock. A fellow victim of the shark, a seagull (she names him Steven Seagal) with a broken wing, also takes shelter with her on the rock.
With nothing much to a story, the hook of the film—what will lure audience—is then entirely up to the cinematography, the acting and how the suspense is presented. All of which were done commendably, to say the least.
Blake Lively (Serena from Gossip Girl) looks and behaves naturally as an athletic surfer with a strong won't-die-today resolve.
Cinematographer Flavio Labiano has previously worked with director Jaume Collet-Serra (Orphan, 2009) on Unknown, Non-stop and a few commercials—enough to know how to translate Collet-Serra's vision into stunning visuals. He makes use of the location well—a crescent-shaped island called Lord Howe between Australia and New Zealand. With its blue-green waters, clean beach, and lack of camera-clicking tourists, the island might as well be the secret paradise that Nancy in the film goes to in Mexico (the name of the secret island is never revealed).
Every scene is intimately detailed, whether it is a close-up of her dehydrated face with pale dried lips, the rising and falling of a tide, or the wounds and scars on the shark. Fortunately, the camera does not linger on her slender physique to distract, but instead glances over other details, like the accessories that she wears (a definite Chekov's Gun).
If there is one word that describes the whole experience of this film, it is subtlety. Unlike the primitive Jaws (with all due respect) or the over-the-top Shark Attack franchise, this one lets you experience the horror through minimal dialogue, aesthetic visuals and detailed sounds. For instance, in a scene where the shark attacks a man just a few yards away from Nancy's rock, the camera is focused on her face as she watches on in horror, while sounds of splashing and muffled cries of pain can be heard from a distance.
Subtlety is practised even while revealing Nancy's raison d'etre through Instagram photos, and in the way the attacks play out (the creature's face isn't even shown the first time it bites Nancy).
In spite of the impressive filming and tight suspense, the film fails to make a splash big enough to keep us cold and wet from the horrors of a killer shark attack on a lonely beach. Maybe it is a tried-and-tested trope ruined by more dramatic shark films, or maybe it appeals to those familiar with the thrills of surfing. It is worth a one-time watch, and would've been more exciting if it was made in 3D.
Film: The Shallows
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Cast: Blake Lively