THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
The Shallows is a ridiculously entertaining modern B-movie. It's the latest example of “shark cinema,” which can be intelligent (Jaws), shamelessly exploitative (Shark Night 3D), or just plain goofy (Sharknado). This picture falls somewhere between the first two categories, serving as both a harrowing survival tale and a cheap thrill machine. Parts of it are fairly preposterous, but everything is executed so well that you're not likely to care.
Blake Lively plays Nancy, a disillusioned med student who quit her studies after her mother died of cancer. She travels to a “secret beach” in Mexico that her mom once told her about, with the intention of doing a little surfing. Not long after hitting the water, she is pursued by a shark, even though she's in fairly shallow water. Nancy takes refuge on a giant rock a couple hundred yards from shore and gets trapped there. Her only companion is a seagull with an injured wing. Her leg is badly damaged, thanks to the sharp coral. Once a day, the tide rises and covers the rocks, meaning she has only a limited amount of time to figure out how to get around the shark to dry land. Since the thing refuses to leave the area, the task ahead of her is daunting.
The Shallows runs a taut 80 minutes (minus end credits) and moves like a bullet. There's more of a scenario here than a plot, but it's one that becomes more intense with every passing minute. On a couple of occasions, someone shows up at the beach, making Nancy think she's going to be saved. Those situations, of course, don't end well. As the water rises to a level that will force her off the rock, so does the tension. There's a buoy slightly further out that, while seemingly safer, poses its own set of dangers. Anthony Jaswinski's screenplay methodically cranks up the danger one steady notch at a time, putting Nancy in greater and greater peril.
Director Jaume Collet-Serra (Run All Night) gives The Shallows a sleek visual style that contrasts the beauty of the physical location with the horror of what's going on in the water. His staging of attacks and other dangers is tremendously effective. The shark pops out when we least expect it to, and a couple moments where Nancy gets sucked under by the tide are terrifying. (Her initial tumble, a slow-motion roll in which she is repeatedly smashed into underwater rocks, is horrific in a How did they do that? kind of way.) Minute to minute, The Shallows wraps you up in tension, making you ask yourself what you would do in such a perilous situation, then waiting to see what Nancy does.
Blake Lively gives a phenomenal performance here. The movie works because she grounds it. Although Nancy's backstory is minimal, the actress gets as much mileage from it as possible. We see her fear morph into a strong-willed desire to stay alive, which in turn morphs into a fierce commitment to not let the shark win because, doggonit, this is personal now. Lively makes it feel incredibly real. All the stuff in The Shallows that's exciting is made even better because she earns our empathy. One of the best scenes is a quiet one, in which Nancy records a message to her family back home, detailing her predicament while promising them she's not going down without a fight.
As in any film of this nature, a possibility exists of going a little overboard at the end. Crank up the suspense high enough and there's nowhere left to go other than a slide into silliness. That certainly happens in the final ten minutes. The resolution of the Nancy-versus-shark battle is too absurd to be credible, even if does provide a weird cathartic release. The Shallows paints itself into a corner that way, because there aren't too many realistic options for someone to fight a shark when they have no weapons at their disposal. The story comes up with what it can, and what it comes up with is, frankly, a wee bit dumb.
Still, The Shallows is, by and large, a fun, effective popcorn thriller, perfect for summer viewing. It provides a steady dose of thrills and an A+ Blake Lively performance.
( out of four)
The Shallows is rated PG-13 for bloody images, intense sequences of peril, and brief strong language. The running time is 1 hour and 27 minutes.
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