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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

The Shallows movie review: she’s gonna need a bigger surfboard

The Shallows green light

MaryAnn’s quick take…
Pure popcorn thrills. Whips up visceral suspense and maintains it till you’re breathless as it cements the arrival of “woman versus nature” as a subgenre.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): desperate for movies about women
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

Young American woman makes a pilgrimage (for reasons a bit melodramatic and almost entirely superfluous, but never mind) to a beach in Mexico that is pristine, secret, and deserted. Or nearly so. Nancy (Blake Lively: The Age of Adaline, Green Lantern) is a bit wary of the couple of guys (Jose Trujillo Salas and Angelo Lozano Corzo) sitting on their surfboards offshore, waiting for the next wave to ride in; she keeps her distance even after they invite her to join them, because all women know to be vigilant around male strangers. Later, as the men prepare to head back to civilization, she nervously watches them on the beach as she sits on her board way out in the water, wondering if they’re going to steal the backpack full of stuff she left on the sand. The guys, of course, are completely harmless, and are gone without ever having done or said anything less than cheerful and friendly to her. But these are the things that women worry about.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Putting a woman at the center of a story instead of the default man automatically brings freshness to a flick, because female protagonists and their perspectives are still such novelties. In The Shallows, written by Anthony Jaswinski (Vanishing on 7th Street), it’s just as Nancy finally truly relaxes and lets her guard down to enjoy this glorious bit of nature that the bad thing she was not anticipating happens: a shark attacks. And it’s a big, mean one. Now she’s stranded on a rock that the retreating tide has revealed, with a nasty deep gash on her leg — it’s not clear whether this was caused by the shark nibbling at her or by a collision with the razor sharp rock, but it doesn’t matter — and the ticking countdown of the eventual high tide that will force her back into the water.

A woman at the center of a story automatically brings freshness to a flick…

So hooray: after so many years of men duking it out against mountains and storms and wild beasts, The Shallows cements the arrival of “woman versus nature” as a subgenretweet (after Wild, the only other major film I can think of in which a woman on her own goes up against the big bad natural world). Director Jaume Collet-Serra (Run All Night, Non-Stop) cannot seem to totally refrain from getting all male-gazey — we really do not need multiple lingering shots up Nancy’s ass as she is paddling out on her board — but mostly he lets her be herself, not eye candy for us, as she desperately navigates her precarious situation. A medical student, she is able to MacGyver a temporary fix for that gash on her leg using items that a dude most likely wouldn’t have had available to him. But she is still stranded, with the beach so tantalizingly in sight and yet not another human being around, and with any thought she might have had of taking a chance swimming to shore quickly put to rest. This is one brutal and determined shark that has it in for her, and it is not going to let her go.

Now, I’m not entirely convinced that either of the two reasons the movie offers for why the shark would target and stalk Nancy are even halfway plausible, but it’s easy to forget that as a problem amidst all the delicious tension. The Shallows is one of those rare movies that manages to whip up pure visceral suspense and maintain it till you’re breathless. Lively is so thoroughly engaging and Collet-Serra so masterful at making us feel everything she is feeling that the result is pure, simple popcorn thrillstweet of the kind that have been all too rare this summer. Jaws invented the summer movie 40 years ago, and it takes another shark to remind us of the electric rush that summer movies are meant to bring.

green light 4 stars

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The Shallows (2016) | directed by Jaume Collet-Serra
US/Can release: Jun 24 2016
UK/Ire release: Aug 12 2016

MPAA: rated PG-13 for bloody images, intense sequences of peril, and brief strong language
BBFC: rated 15 (sustained threat, bloody injury detail)

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.

  • Danielm80

    So hooray: after so many years of men duking it out against mountains and storms and wild beasts, The Shallows cements the arrival of “woman versus nature” as a subgenre (after Wild, the only other major film I can think of in which a woman on her own goes up against the big bad natural world).

    Do Maidentrip and Tracks count, or are you only looking at big studio films? I loved both of those movies, and Wild, and because they came out fairly close together, I wondered what it said about our society that so many women want to escape it.

  • Bluejay

    I’ve been meaning to see all of these, but still haven’t. Must remedy that soon. (Hoping to finish Strayed’s book first before I see the film.)

    Gravity should be on that list too, I think. Of course, it’s a very short list, and we need a lot more.

  • RogerBW

    See, back in the day, her mother killed the shark’s mother…

  • Great films, but tiny, and not products of Hollywood.

  • Yeah, *Gravity*’s a good example, though it might be more “woman vs technology.”

  • Hey, you’ve seen the movie already, haven’t you?!

  • Kellyfergison

    So, you’re ok with a hot actress being exploited onscreen? Many of the shots of the actress was about T & A. She was objectified which I guess you gave a pass to because she’s a female protagonist. Maybe an average-looking American like Gabourey Sibide should’ve been cast instead. But then they would have to change the title to The Shallows: Whale vs. Shark

  • Bluejay

    Did you not read the review? She calls out the director for those shots.

    But then they would have to change the title to The Shallows: Whale vs. Shark

    Mocking Sidibe for her size is the flip side of objectifying the “hot actress” — both reduce women to their bodies and appearances. If you don’t want women to be objectified, lay off insulting women who don’t fit society’s conventions of “beauty.”

  • Ranting Swede

    I adored this movie. It was such a breath of fresh air after all the bloated, boring blockbusters we’ve had this summer. I love watching competent people work their way out of difficult situations in a manner that seems believable. At no point in this film did I think that Nancy made an irrational choice and so I was able to root for her the whole time. This was in stark contrast to Jurassic World, where I hated all the designated “hero” characters for their woeful deadly incompetence. Many critics seemed to find it disappointing that the movie takes a turn for the ridiculous toward the end, but I would argue that the movie knows exactly what kind of cheesy movie it is and escalates steadily till it earns its glorious ending.

    God help me but I also found the male gazey moments easy to forgive and enjoy. They didn’t seem extraneous to the setting and mood at that point in the film, the movie immediately drops them when things get serious, and Nancy’s fierce intelligence and rapidly degrading health condition diminishes the feel that I’m looking at just a piece of meat, if that makes sense.

    Lastly, Steven Seagull is a goddamn treasure.

  • Eric Hoheisel

    I respected your essay on THE VISIT. You pointed out and explained the plot holes and made me think. The problems in Shyamalan’s film were mainly that actions of the parents, police, and kids were extremely implausible. THE SHALLOWS, however, has major problems, not with character actions, but with simple laws of physics and space.


    Let’s start with the attack on the first male surf boarder. The audience is watching for the point of view of the main character when the shark attacks from below propelling itself out of the water and crashing back down. Great White sharks do attack in this fashion but they must start from thirty or forty feet below the target and build speed while moving vertically in order to have the momentum to launch themselves from the water-this can not be done when swimming horizontally. The audience has seen the area between the rock and the shore and we know depth is rather shallow, maybe 10 or at most 15 feet. The shark itself was probably 15 feet long, so how was this attack possible?

    I could point out more about the second attack, and especially the incredibly over the top climax, that doesn’t make sense assuming the normal laws of space and physics, but I won’t write a complete essay. I just wanted to say while the acting, suspense, and cinematography are really good, there are real credibility flaws that could have been ironed out to make a better, more plausible film.

  • But then they would have to change the title to The Shallows: Whale vs. Shark

    You do not get to say shit like this here. Knock it off.

  • Rebecca Dalmas

    Yay, MaryAnn!

    This will be a fun laundry-folding flick that I can watch more than once. I love the underwater cinematography and the smart protagonist.

    About the reasons she’s at the beach, couldn’t it be possible that Nancy finds more strength to fight because of it? Woman and meaning: I think it can make a difference.

  • Yes, that’s true, but I meant those reasons are generally superfluous to the actual plot. It could have been an entirely different reason she’s at the beach, reasons that still could have given her strength and determination, but different reasons would not change *what happens* here one tiny bit.

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