The Shallows is a survivalist thriller. It's also a shark movie. And in a moviegoing season so often defined by bloat, Jaume Collet-Serra's blubber-free suspense film is a breath of fresh air — even as it has you holding your breath throughout.
Blake Lively plays a wayward med student, a beach-blonde surfer chick whose secret paradise is also home to a goddamn leviathan — a CGI shark that's a laser-focused killing machine. Nancy (Lively) is a would-be doctor on one of those loss-induced journeys of self-discovery that always lead floundering protagonists in over their heads. As she makes her way through a jungle in the wilds of Mexico to a gorgeous, tucked-away beach — the name of which otherwise friendly locals are loath to share with her, lest she go home and tell her friends about it — it's clear she's just checked a major item off her bucket list. This is comforting, as it may be her last.
Nancy apologizes to her driver for her broken Spanish by saying "Sorry, I'm American," but she's no novice on the board. In tune with the land (and the crystal-clear water), the capable surfer was taught well by her dearly departed mother, who first visited this nameless getaway before Nancy was born. Collet-Serra shows off his lead's heavenly body as she prepares to break the waves, then puts her through hell.
It's not a punitive, horror-movie hell, but rather a kind of trial by fire, like what Sandra Bullock endured in Gravity. When two fellow surfers give Nancy a rundown of the beach's geography after she's made her way a couple hundred yards out, it's as though they're describing a battlefield: Avoid the rocks over here, stay far from the fire coral over there and, whatever you do, be mindful of the strong current as you paddle out. Not long after they make their way back to shore, Nancy notices something strange and paddles over to it: a massive, floating whale carcass being picked at by all manner of aquatic life, including a giant fucking shark that quickly turns its attention to her.
Nancy gets bitten; of course she does. The moment she's pulled underwater — the tranquil blue instantly turning red with blood — is among the most indelible images of the year so far, the half-submerged camera bobbing in and out of the waves like something out of the commercial-fishing documentary Leviathan. The Shallows is primal and breathless, each of its 87 minutes packed to the gills with no-frills action; Jaws practically invented the blockbuster as a genre unto itself, and Collet-Serra's film lives up to that legacy better than any other movie of its kind in the nearly 40 years since.
After finding refuge on a large rock that juts out of the water, Nancy tends to her wounds and begins planning her escape, her safe haven threatening to disappear with the high tide. She also talks to herself the way she would a patient, her bedside manner a sign that she's not ready to become chum just yet. Lively is exceptional in what amounts to a solo performance, anchoring the drama with grace and grit. As the color drains from her face, as she clings to a buoy — hell, as she befriends an injured bird and names it Steven Seagull — it becomes clearer than ever that she's a fighter rather than shark fodder. Steven makes for an endearing sidekick, an emotional lifeline for our desperate heroine.
The Shallows ultimately has more in common with The Grey's brand of man-versus-nature survivalism than the more obvious reference point of Jaws. On the other hand, Lively spends much less time waxing existential than Liam Neeson's wolf-fighter ever did. There's little time for one-liners or philosophical musings when you're busy suturing a leg wound with a pair of earrings.
Directed by Jaume-Collet Serra
Now showing, area theaters
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