Hitchcock once said that the best way to thrill the audience is to have them see the bomb under the table before anything happens. To clarify, he explained that if you had a couple sitting at a table and then a bomb randomly exploded, you would be afraid for a little while, but it would fade. True fear comes from seeing the bomb placed under the table and having to wait as the couple enjoys their meal — none the wiser — while it ticks.
The Shallows implements this timeless trait to near-perfection as the logline gives away the bomb under the table. The film follows Nancy (Blake Lively), a medical student visiting a remote Mexican beach in order to surf. While going after a wave, she is attacked by a shark, leaving her stranded in the ocean while the animal picks off any lifelines she may have had.
In this case, the shark is the bomb under the table. While this conceit may seem too closely related to Spielberg’s masterpiece, Jaws, the director, Jaume Collet-Serra, strays away from too many comparisons to the 1975 blockbuster and sticks to exploring a more personal story of loss and acceptance through the character of Nancy and her fight against the beast.
It is established before the attack happens that Nancy’s mother has passed away from cancer prior to her trip to the beach, which is yet another runaway response by the character, who is struggling to cope with the loss.
This guilt rises to the surface as she wades on a rock in the middle of the water with a giant shark circling her. Collet-Serra uses handheld GoPro cameras — a technique yet to be perfected in modern cinema — in order to give Nancy a chance to share a more personal revelation with herself, her family, and the audience. The small action cameras are also used to illustrate some of the action — allowing for a quick scare with one of the shark attacks — but is most effective when Nancy leaves her last goodbyes before beginning her final charge against the shark.
In this moment, these cameras allow for a more emotional and personal moment of grief relief — which is aided by a standout performance by Blake Lively — and seems much more organic than some of the other times they’ve found themselves used in movies.
In the beginning of the film, Nancy has not come to terms with the loss of her mother as shown through a brief conversation over the phone between her and her father. Since her mother’s death, she has left medical school and has begun galavanting around the world in search of some escape from the reality of death. Ironically, death comes in the form of a giant great white shark and Nancy is forced to accept this.
With the shark signifying (but very bluntly) death, it allows for a very triumphant final sequence when (SPOILERS) Nancy takes to the beach a year later — showing that she has come to peace with death and the events at the previous beach and is able to hit the water once more.
But, the backbone of the film is thrills and scares — and in this respect, Collet-Serra owes a debt to Spielberg and Jaws. Similar to the 1975 classic, Collet-Serra teases us often with the possible shark attack, electing to use silence and the subtle sounds of the waves as an indicator of something evil brewing below instead of the famous melody by John Williams. The most effective use of silence by the director is when Nancy is surfing with two other men at the beach as a pop song plays. Collet-Serra cuts back and forth between the three surfers and the penetrating silence under the water.
This back-and-forth between heightened summer fun and the abyss of terror below allows Collet-Serra to keep the audience on the edge of their seats, leaning forward to see whether something will happen or not.
The Shallows lacks the characters and craft that made Jaws such an iconic film, but that’s also because it never wants to be categorized in the same field. In its own rights, it is a highly successful summer pop entertainment thriller that contains all the elements you would want out of a summer day at the movies — beautiful woman, majestic scenery, and a giant shark getting in the way of both.
It is a film that would make Jean-Luc Godard proud, and one that reminds us how charming a self-contained, well-executed thriller can be. The thrills are great, the imagery is fun, but it also doesn’t forget to dig into the character and force you to care — what more could we ask from our summer movies?