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‘The Shallows’ Review: You Messed With the Wrong Blake Lively, Shark

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Against a dark and cloudy sky, a girl races towards the ocean. A drunk young man follows close behind. “Where are we going?” he groans. “Swimming!” she replies. The drunk boy stumbles and falls; only the girl makes it to the water, which shimmers in the moonlight like a sea of liquid jewels. She will never return to dry land.

These are the perfect, terrifying opening minutes of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, where an unsuspecting swimmer is snatched from the ocean by a man-eating shark. Jaws left so many imitators in its wake, roiling the cinematic waters with movies about killer fish and killer whales and killer alligators and killer sharks that are also incredibly smart. All of them, even Jaws’ direct sequels, tried to outdo the original by going bigger — even though the appeal of the original was its economic storytelling and subtle approach to horror. After all these years, it’s surprising no one tried what The Shallows does, namely to turn those first few minutes of Jaws into an entire movie, and to return some much-needed simplicity to the subgenre. This really is just the story of a woman versus a shark.

The woman, Nancy, is played by Blake Lively. As The Shallows begins in coastal Mexico, a local (Óscar Jaenada) drives Nancy to a beach so remote and secluded no one seems to know its name. Nancy has family history there; her mother surfed its perfect waves when she was pregnant with her. Now Mom is dead of cancer and Nancy is unsure about her own future. This trip is as much a vacation as a séance.

A movie about a shark trying to eat a surfer in a bathing suit so small it barely contains enough surface area to qualify as rope much less clothing is not necessarily art. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be artful. Early scenes establish this backstory (and important character details, like Nancy’s background as a med school dropout) with terse dialogue and FaceTime calls home. “Mom’s Beach,” as Nancy refers to it, is perhaps the most beautiful spot on Earth. But the longer director Jaume Collet-Serra films this paradise in ultra-wide shots and bird’s eye views from hundreds of feet in the air, the more its beauty takes on unnerving dimensions. Then he begins to alternate aerial shots with shots from the depths, the classic Jaws point-of-view angle. It’s as if Nancy is being observed from both above and below. 

But if anyone watching from above, they remain silent. After the only other swimmers head home for the night and the shark that’s been lurking nearby strikes, there is absolutely no one around to help. It’s just her against a deadly predator, with only her wits and her will to keep her alive.

The Shallows’ scale is small but the stakes could not be higher. Collet-Sera, working from a screenplay by Anthony Jaswinski, continually find creative new ways to terrorize Lively. (The movie is essentially shark torture porn.) In the tradition of films like Phone Booth or Buried, the story is all about the hero problem-solving their way out of danger. Lively finds temporary safety on a tiny island, but the tide rolls in and threatens to reclaim it. The swimmers return the next morning, but how can she get their attention without turning them into fish food?

The entertainment value of Collet-Serra’s movies (Orphan, UnknownNon-Stop) tends to be directly proportional to their absurdity. By his standards, The Shallows is relatively realistic, but it does feature several knowingly silly touches. Nancy gets a bird sidekick to talk to; she affectionately names him Steven Seagull. And Lively, who is both tough and vulnerable in her role, delivers the line “Where are you taking me?” to a floating whale carcass, which is maybe the funniest thing anyone says in any 2016 summer movie.

Maybe that’s damning with faint praise. The Shallows isn’t perfect; the ending probably goes a little too cartoonish, some of the facial replacement on Lively’s surfing double is scarier than the stuff with the shark, and there’s a couple times when Lively loudly explains to no one at all what she’s doing and you can practically hear the studio executives demanding more exposition. At times, it does feel like a short film expanded beyond the boundaries its story would logically allow. But this summer movie season has been mostly terrible, and dominated by movies of epic scope and less-than-epic enjoyment. Surrounded by so many bloated, unsatisfying movies, The Shallows is as refreshing as a quick dip on a hot summer day — preferably in a pool, not the ocean. They tend to be safer and less shark-infested.

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