The premise for The Shallows – Blake Lively stuck on a rock while a hungry shark prowls around – sounds like a recipe for lean, no-frills horror. Alas, there are some frills, in the form of a fairly standard issue backstory. Lively plays Nancy, a med school student with some doubts about her life’s trajectory following the death of her mother, so she comes to surf at the remote Mexican beach that Mom visited while pregnant with her. These details are sort of superfluous, but they are well-deployed, explaining Nancy’s motivation and resourcefulness as she fights to survive. Plus, it gives director Jaume Collet-Serra plenty of opportunities to show off his knack for cinematizing mobile communication.
Most striking about The Shallows is the gorgeous cinematography, courtesy of Flavio Martínez Labiano. In addition to the gratuitous cheesecake shots, there are sublimely expansive vistas of the hills and shore overlooking the ocean. This beauty might feel out of place for a film whose m.o. is striking fear, but the widescreen quality is utilized smartly. Visuals that are initially life-affirming eventually serve to viscerally emphasize the isolation and long odds faced by Nancy.
For anyone worried about the implications of the MPAA’s ruling, rest assured that The Shallows is probably the goriest PG-13 movie I have ever seen. From Nancy’s improvised surgery on herself, to the fates that befall some of her would-be saviors, there are moments as intense as any of those from the most explicit creature features. The subgenre of Impossible Odds Thrillers exists to convince moviegoers they can survive life-or-death situations more than they ever thought possible. The Shallows is unrelenting in that belief.
Finally, everything you have heard about Blake Lively’s seagull co-star is true.
I give The Shallows 8 Reservoirs of Internal Strength out of 10 Expressions of Terror.