During 1999, there was one title in particular at the Sundance Film Festival that had people abuzz: The Blair Witch Project. The cheap and independently produced film made by a bunch of kids with very little experience managed to scare the hell out of attending critics and set off a bidding war by several major studios before mini-distributor Artisan Entertainment (now defunct and owned by Lionsgate Films) became the victor. The rest, as they say, is history. Not only did The Blair Witch Project change the way filmmakers approached the medium, it also added a new kind of film for which potential distributors should look — the cheaply produced thriller that, with clever marketing, had the power to be immensely profitable with little risk. Every year following, people were on the lookout for the next Blair Witch.
In 2003, the same thing occurred at Sundance, only this film was Open Water, another cheaply and independently produced film made by inexperienced filmmakers with no-name actors. Based on a true story (unlike The Blair Witch Project, which only pretended to be), Open Water depicted a couple left behind in the middle of the ocean during a vacation scuba-diving trip, only to be slowly surrounded by sharks. While it didn’t capture the attention of the masses in the same way its witchy predecessor did, it still managed to make a splash with critics, who praised the film’s ingenuity and creativity in the face of budgetary restrictions. (Real sharks too, by the way — in the same water as the actors.)
And then along came The Reef several years later. The Australian production was a slicker product with a slightly higher budget, but also basically the same thing: shipwrecked people surrounded by sharks, each dying off one by one. It was an effective little number, even if the concept was a little less novel. (If we want to credit a sole inspiration for all of these sharks vs. people conflicts in modern cinema, maybe we can point to Quint’s stirring and still-famous U.S.S. Indianapolis monologue from JAWS.)
And this has led to The Shallows, which, again, explores the concept of one person being trapped in the middle of the ocean by a monstrous shark that WILL eat her, even IF there’s a giant whale just a few feet away that it could eat instead. (Sharks like whale meat so much that mass feedings have turned into orgies—just sayin'.) But instead of the independently produced version of this concept with a realistic and downbeat finale, The Shallows is very Hollywood, sticking the beautiful Blake Lively in a tight wetsuit, tighter bikini, and pitting her against an unrealistically behaving CGI shark. Along the way she becomes friends with a bird, talks to herself a lot, and manages to pull off the impossible, which I can’t expound upon without getting into spoiler territory.
As dumb as that all sounds (and it is dumb), The Shallows is easy entertainment and exactly the kind of film it set out to be. The film’s marketing was quick to liken it to this generation’s JAWS and that’s kind of accurate, except it’s essentially a feature length version of JAWS' final five minutes made for the instagram generation. When theaters were flooded with multi Saws and Hostels, the term “torture porn” was coined (but used incorrectly as often as “hipster” is today); spinning off from that, The Shallows is basically shark porn: camera close-ups of Blake Lively’s flawlessly toned and tanned body, intercut with ominous underwater shots or dark silhouettes housed in waves signifying the presence of a shark. “Did you see that?” audience members likely asked and pointed to the shadow in the wave. But no, the glimpse is gone; now it’s back to a close-up of Lively’s bikinied bottom, or side-breast, or tropical ocean water dripping off her blonde hair. It’s absurd and not exactly subtle; again, it’s easy entertainment, at which director Jaume Collett-Sera excels. Vaulted into the game following his better-than-expected horror film Orphan, this is the kind of playground where he’s best utilized.
Amidst all the unnecessary and already dated speed-ramping, there are moments of genuine effectiveness, generally when Blake Lively’s Nancy is getting beaten up by the ocean. And this sounds like mockery, but it’s not; as she’s taken by the tide and rolled over sharp coral on the ocean floor, or during the first shark attack sequence, you imagine you’re feeling her pain. You cringe at the sight and your body tenses as if you’re about to feel shark teeth in your leg. Collett-Serra knows what he’s doing, even if he chooses to do it for concepts that are about 90% close to being real, actual films. And sequences like these are strikingly realized — especially the before mentioned initial shark attack.
Despite the modern age's well established dependence on CGI, the shark looks terrible. The dummy version is obviously a dummy, and the CGI version is more obviously CGI. They must know this, as the shark only features on screen for maybe less than a minute, with the usual fin and shadow shots doing much of the heavy lifting. Every appearance of the CGI shark is distracting. Because the audience (hopefully) knows the filmmakers didn’t use a real great white shark (they don’t take well to animal training, in case you never knew that), they immediately look to deduce “the trick”—to determine the “how did they do that?” of it all. Well, the answer is easy: computers. And from the looks of it, quickly, and on the cheap.
The Sci-Fi/Syfy Channel, especially their grating and brainless Sharknado films, have done enough damage to the killer shark sub-genre that The Shallows actually manages to leave a not-so-sour taste in your mouth as the credits roll. It’s popcorn entertainment at its truest definition, but sometimes a little popcorn is okay. Lively actually puts a lot of effort into what must have been a physically strenuous role, and the crew deserves accolades for filming almost exclusively on the ocean, which is extremely difficult just from a logistical standpoint. The Shallows won’t make you forget JAWS or Open Water, but it’s certainly better than Deep Blue Sea and Shark Night, and in the age of Sharknado and Mega-Shark versus Roger Corman, I’ll take it.