In the four decades since Jaws first stalked theaters & nightmares, shark movies (along with a sharkless brand of Jaws knockoffs) have become something of a summertime tradition. The 2016 version of the giant shark creature feature is smart to recognize its place within this trashiest of cinematic traditions. The popcorn thriller The Shallows is brilliant in the way it keeps things simple. It’s Blake Lively in a neon bikini fighting off a CGI shark for 90min. What do you need, a road map? The film makes a few moves to update the summer shark flick formula for 2016 tastes, but for the most part keeps it simple as a lean, mean, and above all campy survival horror that plays surprisingly fresh in its earnest adoption of stale tropes & cheap surface pleasures.
In the opening scene a mysterious GoPro washes up on a secluded Mexican beach revealing footage of a vicious shark attack. Anyone conscious of horror trends over the last 15 years would be smart to worry in that moment that The Shallows might devolve into some dreadful found footage territory, but that mistake would make it a hangover from the post-Blair Witch aughts, when this film is very much concerned with being up to date (and instantly dated) with the cultural markers of 2016.The GoPro footage is just one aspect of a modern digital tapestry of Instagram, FaceTime, text message scrolling, and what have you. There’s a small pinch of cellphone addiction shaming mixed in that cocktail as our shark bait protagonist finds herself staring at a rectangular screen instead of the picturesque beach that surrounds her, but given the dangers that are lurking in that jaw-dropping slice of paradise, there isn’t much of a viable alternative to modern living presented. There’s also a vague metaphor about learning to fight against the odds in which battling the film’s gigantic shark antagonist is likened to battling cancer, but even that’s just a weak excuse for a visual feast of CGI shark mayhem, totally rad surfing montages, an sick ass pop music beats.
Watching a bodacious babe rip some waves in a neon bikini on a gorgeous beach setting at first recalls something like a Baywatch horror, but The Shallows has no problem delivering sheer terror when it has to. There’s so much swinging The Shallows in the direction of goofball camp: a couple especially silly encounters with CGI dolphins & jellyfish, a gratuitous explosion, a hideous model of a whale carcass, a caricature of a witless drunk so over the top it could’ve existed in the 1930s, a puke-eating sidekick named Steven Seagull (who’s easily up there with Black Phillip for Animal of the Year), etc. Even the film’s basic 1-shark-vs.-1-woman premise has a campy appeal to it. However, the shark attacks do have a real gravity to them as well. There’s intense gore in the film’s moments of self surgery & genuine heart-racing thriller beats when our hero & her friend the seagull have to stave off real-life dehydration & cabin fever. The Shallows is satisfied relegating itself to a 100% trashy surface pleasure ethos, but it doesn’t let up on the practical results of its central scenario’s violence & confinement and that dual goofy/scary balance is what makes this such effective summertime schlock.
It’s also worth noting that this woman-vs.-shark surf pop horror flick is also elevated by a really sharp, vibrant style of cinematography. The film’s set can look a little artificial in a corny way at night, as does its onscreen smartphone gimmickry, but its daytime photography can be strikingly beautiful, especially underwater. It’s tempting to give some of the credit for that effect to the scenic locale, but cinematographer Flavio Martinez Labiano (who also shot the minor cult classic Timecrimes) certainly deserves credit for affording this film a distinct sense of style. In certain moments of Blake Lively surfing or water turning blood red, Labiano’s lens recalls Spring Breakers hedonism turned into straightforward genre fare and the film looks way better than it has any right to. On top of being a surprisingly efficient little summertime thriller with killer shark mayhem & seagull humor, The Shallows is also purty to look at, however vapid its genre trappings may be. As far as escaping the season’s oppressive heat goes, there’s certainly far less satisfying ways to spend 90min enjoying darkness & the AC and, since this seasonal subgenre will likely never die, you’re sure to see way worse examples of shark horror in the future. You might as well enjoy one of the better examples we have in recent memory.