Sense of Space: The Shallows (2016)

The premise for The Shallows (2016) is fairly simple.

Nancy Adams (Blake Lively) visits the same secluded beach her mother surfed when she found out she was pregnant with her daughter, as a way of spending some alone time. Nancy catches a couple of waves, comes across a shark, and finally sits atop a rock waiting for help.

It’s the sort of movie you wished Hollywood would make more of, an unabashedly honest B-movie that doesn’t parade around like it’s something more than it really is. It’s certainly not without its flaws, but it does feature genuinely suspenseful moments thanks to some sharp filmmaking and features a game Blake Lively in what is surprisingly only her second starring role.

It’s also a vastly different picture than that of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975) – one is an enjoyable movie that makes you never want to surf and the other is a film that makes you hesitant to drive up to the beach altogether.

The Shallows finds director Jaume Collet-Serra coming off another “one location” film, 2014’s Non-Stop, which found the filmmaker working entirely in an airplane. The films become unconventional companion pieces – going from the open sky to the bottom of the ocean.

The contained space of an airplane may seem more restricting, but somehow The Shallows, set in the vastness of the open ocean, is the more claustrophobic film. That’s essentially the point of the film. Nancy’s character is confined to this single space, with the rock under her becoming home base; anytime she tries to stray away, whether it’s to a nearby buoy or back to the shore, she springs back onto her little island as a result of the shark circling around her.

The greatest weakness, however, is Jaume Collet-Serra’s approach to the shark as a character. In Jaws, Steven Spielberg and editor Verna Fields were strategic about how much of the shark they would show on screen. In Editing and Special/Visual Effects, he states:

“Verna was always in favor of less to be more. And I was trying to squeeze in that one more–because it took me DAYS to get that one shot! So I’m going back to, I’m on a barge for two days trying to get the shark to look real, and the sad fact was that the shark would only look real in 36 frames and not 38 frames. And that 2 frame difference was the difference between something really scary, and something that looked like a great white floating turd.”

Jaws is, without a doubt, the smarter film. There is no real fear in The Shallows. There is only suspense that results from its carefully designed action sequences. That’s because Jaws isn’t a shark film. It’s much more because of the horror the film suggests – which is what makes the film work so well. The Shallows, however, plays with space in a number of interesting ways, from its frequent use of overhead shots that effectively offers audiences a sense of the surrounding space to the devastating fact that you can be so close to the shore yet so far away and so completely helpless.