For decades – as anyone who sat through Sharknado will tell you – the open ocean has been where horror goes to die.
Jaws’ phenomenal success in 1975 sired a thousand bastard offspring consisting of countless malformed sharks, some endowed with absurd and embarrassing dimensions (Shark Attack), others with weird animatronic bodies (Deep Blue Sea), and some with implausibly human malevolence (Jaws 4, truly the nadir).
The trick, as Spielberg knew and Jaume Collet-Serra has now realised, is keeping your shark mostly hidden. His movie The Shallows plays its cards fastidiously close to its chest, with moments of full-frontal terror very rare. Mostly all we see is fin, and this cinematic austerity characterises the whole of the movie. It’s 86 gloriously tense minutes sketched from the thinnest imaginable premise: Blake Lively versus shark.
This isn’t to say that there’s no plot – there is, and it is utter tedium, something to do with Lively’s dead mum and her burgeoning career as a doctor (it’s too generic to require further description). The opening and closing scenes, where this backstory asserts itself, are the worst, most bloated parts of the film. They’re also unnecessary, since survival thrillers are essentially an already complete form. They require no plot, because they draw on a universally comprehensible motivation: the will to live. It would be thrilling to see a big budget movie follow Robert Redford’s 2011 film Lost at Sea in stripping itself of any dialogic or narrative baggage, leaving only the raw power of the image.
The Shallows isn’t quite that movie, but for the long stretches it comes close, with its near-action movie greatness. The whole thing takes place (as the title suggests) within tantalising distance of the shore, as the shark circles her tiny stretch of rock. She has to escape it before it is swallowed by the rising tide. Lively is a gripping lead, and Collet-Sera is a very good director, treating her less as a character than a dynamic, interactive body, an object to be bloodied and bashed. She isn’t a distressed Hitchcockian blonde, however, and the best moments centre on her pushing back against her unremitting opponent. At times it feels as if all of nature is on the shark’s side, with only the audience willing her on.