Hitchcock once talked about the difference between surprise and suspense. He said that if you want to surprise an audience, make a bomb go off under the table. The surprise will wear off, and you’ll move on. If you want to keep them interested, though, you show them the bomb under the table, and you make them wait for it to explode.
Ever since Jaws, we’ve been conditioned to feel this sort of suspense in the ocean. If you look at a surfboard from under the water, or if something seems a little too quiet, you just know there’s going to be a shark attack. The Shallows feeds off this fear, for what makes a pretty effective motion picture.
At the start of the film, a GoPro camera washes up on a beach, and it’s got a video of its owner being attacked by a shark. The tension, even when it’s not actively present, still lingers from this moment onward. Nancy Adams (Blake Lively, The Age of Adaline) has gone all the way down to Mexico to a beach her mother went to years before. On her surfboard, she sees a bleeding whale, and it’s there that the shark attacks her. She makes her way to the nearest rock, and she spends the rest of the film trying to get back on land, narrowly avoiding the shark every time. She’s even got a cute companion, Steven Seagull (no joke).
If you’d told me that a script like this could get made, I’d have laughed in your face. A massive chunk of the film takes place on or near this rock, and yet you can’t help but watch. Director Jaume Collet-Serra sets the stage with just enough conflict to keep the film afloat. It’s like All is Lost: if all else fails, at least you can look at your attractive star.
It may not be a revolution in cinema, but it still bites. Sure, a few parts are on the nose, but it really knows how to swim. (There’s your pun fix.)
Before the shark attack, this would be a great commercial for the ocean. After the shark attack, it is a good film about how to survive in it. It can be tenser than tightropes.
Just don’t watch it near the shore.
The Shallows is in theaters now.