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You’ll want to book a Sandals Resort package, minus the snorkeling, after seeing The Shallows, featuring comely Blake Lively in a bikini menaced by a Great White shark for 80 or so well-directed minutes. Expert technique masks a scant survival story in Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra’s great looking B-movie, one that celebrates the virtues of a scantily clad starlet and some very nifty underwater cinematography. And that’s about it. What it doesn’t do—and it’s a problem in this lean, mean picture—is generate much real suspense, tense and enjoyable as it sometimes goes.
On a pilgrimage to the secret Mexican beach (shot in Australia) and hangout of her late mother, Galveston native and med school dropout Nancy (Lively) is looking for alone time to deal with her loss. Alienated from her dad back home and stood up by her hung-over girlfriend, she goes it alone to the azure horseshoe cove before quickly hanging ten offshore, where she meets a pair of amiable local surfers. In the film’s best sequence, Collet-Serra and cinematographer Flavio Labiano (the film’s real star) place the camera above and below the water, shallow and deep, amongst coral and ocean spray, waves breaking overhead and bodies gliding at breakneck speed up and down wall-sized crests.
But when left alone to chase one last wave, Nancy comes upon the carcass of a mutilated killer whale, inadvertently placing herself directly in the middle of a Great White’s feeding ground. In a truly exciting sequence, bitten and badly wounded Nancy, with a profusely bleeding thigh, climbs atop the creature’s massive carcass and to short-lived safety.
Nancy eventually settles upon a protruding rock about 200 yards offshore, but the tide renders that refuge only a temporary haven. Not to worry, because resourceful Nancy, who has already used her wetsuit as a tourniquet, stitched up her nasty gash and clocked the speed of the shark’s circling revolutions (flawed logic as a shark sensing a drop of blood or prey in the water would immediately deviate from its pattern), hatches a plan to get off her quickly vanishing perch.
The second half of The Shallows goes something like this: Someone gets in the water. Shark arrives. Person eaten. Nancy gets into the water. Narrowly escapes. Two more characters get into the water. Shark arrives. Both eaten. Nancy gets into the water. Even narrower escape. And then there’s the shark, a marauding behemoth that feels awfully familiar and which in one late shot of the animal diving below the surface after being set aflame, looks CGI fake. It’s only one shot, but it took me out of the movie.
The presence of a broken-winged seagull Nancy nicknames “Steven Seagull” generates the most honest emotion here, Lively otherwise pushing hard on a few scenes of contrived family melodrama requiring the actress to make teary, banal confessionals directly to a Go Pro camera and carry on an awkward, early picture video call establishing her anxieties. And the final coda is, frankly, unnecessary silliness.
Star Lively, here a triathlete more than actress, throws herself into her first real starring role and one where she largely acts alone, with mostly effective conviction, even if some of her broader emoting to unsuspecting victims and family members feels a bit acted. Fighting high tides, jellyfish, fire coral, crabs and blazing heat, Lively mostly acquits herself from Tony Jazwinski’s dopey dialogue in a movie that fancies itself a cousin to far the superior All is Lost of 127 Hours. And since all killer shark movies will be judged against Steven Spielberg’s 1975 gold standard, The Shallows mostly comes up short, and also shorter than 2003’s nightmarish Open Water, featuring real sharks circling its lost at sea stars.
It may seem like I’m knocking The Shallows, but as an unpretentiously satisfying woman-versus-nature parable, Collet-Serra (Orphan, Non-Stop) delivers the goods against a perfunctory screenplay and familiar material.
And then there is Blake Lively in a bikini—which in the middle of summer movie doldrums may be just the point.