For anyone who came of age in the 1970s or '80s, no film featuring a scary sea creature will ever top Jaws, a remarkable combination of filmmaking by Steven Spielberg and music by John Williams that launched both of their careers into the stratosphere.
The Shallows, another movie starring a killer shark, doesn’t quite reach the level of Jaws, but it comes closer than you'd think. The biggest reason for that is because it focuses on one character, Nancy (Blake Lively), a Texas surf girl who travels to Mexico to reconnect with the spirit of her recently deceased mother.
She does this by going to the same beach her mom went to when she found out she was pregnant with Nancy. Save for a couple of local surfers, Nancy is utterly alone on the waves, a situation that turns deadly when a great white shark starts attacking her. Nancy finds temporary shelter on an outcrop of rocks during low tide, but the changing ocean level and relentlessness of the shark leave her vulnerable.
The success of the movie, directed by Jaume Collet-Serra and written by Anthony Jaswinski, comes from how relatively subtle it is. The filmmakers lay the groundwork for future events with passing references to Nancy’s medical school background, among other things. They also get us on her side right away, with a nice use of modern technology that establishes her as a sympathetic figure.
But, naturally, it’s the confrontations with the shark that keep the movie suspenseful. While undoubtedly most marine biologists would take issue with the idea of a great white being a manhunter, in the context of the movie, it works perfectly. With Nancy isolated in the middle of the ocean, yet within 200 yards of shore, the fear factor is upped considerably.
Lively gives one of the best performances of her career, making Nancy into someone who’s neither super heroic nor a damsel in distress. Instead, she keeps her wits about her, making mostly sound decisions instead of the usual irrational ones that characters put in stressful situations usually do.
It would be a mistake to dismiss The Shallows as merely Jaws-lite and nothing more. Suspenseful, crafty storytelling and Lively's deft acting elevate this to a film that could possibly become the surprise hit of the summer.