When we think of shark movies, our brains logically skip right to Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, the 1975 classic that not only ushered in the era of the blockbuster, but also introduced us to one of the finest filmmakers ever born. Since Jaws was a massive hit, there were of course countless sequels, remakes, rip-offs, and knock-offs — and very few of them are actually worth digging up. Jaws was seemingly so damn good, however, that it turned the major studios off on even attempting another shark flick for several years.
How many (wide release, studio-produced, half-decent) shark movies have we received since Jaws? Surprisingly enough, not all that many. Students of the sub-genre (like me; I adore shark movies) may point to flicks like 1999’s Deep Blue Sea (fun but wildly dumb) or 2011’s goofy but amusing Shark Night 3-D, but for the most part, if you want quality shark movies you’ll have to sift through low-budget silliness like Sharknado or low-key indies like Open Water.
Fortunately we now have another movie to add to the “quality shark thriller” list. The simple, straightforward, and refreshingly fast-paced The Shallows may not be the next coming of Jaws, but, to its credit, it never actually tries to be. It’s about a young woman (Blake Lively) who (unwisely) decides to surf an isolated stretch of Mexican coastline, all by herself, and finds herself trapped on a rocky shoal when a great white shark shows up to dine on a floating whale carcass. That’s it. That’s the whole plot.
The remarkably efficient 86 minute movie opens with a brief but effective dash of location setting and character development before it settles in to the main course: an injured (but very resourceful) woman trapped on a rock, only 50 feet from the beach, as a ravenous shark patrols the area looking for snacks. Screenwriter Anthony Jaswinski (Vanishing on 7th Street) does a fine job of placing new obstacles in our heroine’s way (and at providing a few unfortunate side dishes for the hungry shark) and director Jaume Collet-Serra (Orphan) provides an impressive visual approach while amping up the tension at every possible turn.
Much of the credit is due to Blake Lively’s excellent lead performance. A story like this needs a main character who is likable, clever, and conflicted in some way, and Lively does an excellent job of creating a three-dimensional character we really start to root for. And while The Shallows plays a bit like a “gimmick flick” (think Phone Booth or Buried), it also offers an impressive escalation of tension as the filmmakers throw countless hurdles between our poor heroine and a slim chance at escape.
Toss in a few well-timed jump scares, some very solid special effects, and a very effective musical score, and you may just have — yes — the finest studio-baked shark movie since you-know-what. (Jaws.)
Words: Scott Weinberg (@scotteweinberg)