It’s the perfect formula for a summer movie. Take one of the most beautiful actresses on the planet in Blake Lively, throw her in a tiny bikini, set her on a secluded Mexican beach, and then let a CGI great white shark terrorize her for 87 minutes. This is the plot of The Shallows, and for the first hour of those 87 minutes, the audience is treated to an amazingly paced “man (or woman) vs. nature” story that makes Tom Hanks’ issues in Castaway look pedestrian.
Unfortunately, the last 27 minutes of The Shallows devolves into a head-scratcher, as the laws of science, physics, the animal kingdom, and nearly everything else that governs life as we know it is thrown overboard for the sake of nonsense and of amping the stakes even further. As if a beautiful woman stuck on a rock in the middle of a lagoon at low tide, hounded by nature’s perfect killing machine wasn’t already enough, The Shallows tries to sink the entire production with fire. Yes, fire.
The Shallows opens with Nancy Adams (Lively), a recent med-school drop out, and her driver, local man Carlos (Oscar Jaenada), driving through the dense Mexican jungle as Nancy stares at pictures of her now-dead mother on her phone. Her mother was a surfer before she got sick and surfed a hidden Mexican beach when she was pregnant with Nancy, so of course, to honor her mother, Nancy is retracing the journey. Through some clunky exposition, we learn all about what happened, as Nancy takes a break from surfing long enough to call her sister back in Texas to check in, and force even more exposition with a conversation rehashing all of Nancy’s life problems.
But once Nancy gets into the water, all is fine as the tubes are clear and the water is perfect. Here director Jaume Collett-Serra and cinematographer Flavio Martinez Labiano really take the audience into the world of surfing, all the while building up suspense by dipping the camera underwater with the ebb and flow of the ocean, teasing us that something could be under there, waiting, stalking. The surfing scenes use the location and the beauty of the waves to give The Shallows a surfing documentary look, with slo-mo shots and precision board tricks.
Nancy meets up with two other surfers (Angelo Lozano Corzo and Jose “Yuco” Trujillo Salas) and when they leave for the day, Nancy is left all alone. And then a series of bad events begin that changes the dynamic of the film. A whale corpse floats into the lagoon, bringing with it seagulls and, of course, a great white shark. Nancy decides to ride one last wave in, but that is when the shark strikes, biting her leg and sending her on path to brutal survival against all odds.
The script for The Shallows does a decent job of explaining things, even with the sometimes heavy handed exposition in the opening 15 minutes. The whale corpse is a the perfect excuse as to why a white shark would be in the area, and, of course, once Nancy is tagged, her bleeding keeps her as an option on the buffet. I could flex some nerdy shark knowledge and explain that sharks would never choose the flavor of a human over that of a whale, but really, as the third act of The Shallows plays out, all practical sense has to be abandoned to truly enjoy the film. And there is still a ton to enjoy here.
Lively carries the movie on her shoulders, and does so admirably. She inexplicably makes a friend with an injured seagull on the rock she is stuck on, and oddly, it works here. The audience feels for her, and the amount of strain that the script has dumped on her, with exposure, an injured leg, and a huge shark literally circling her. A lesser actress might have buckled here, but Lively survives — in more ways than one.
The shark is also 100 percent CGI, and it is some of the best ever used in a film. Little nuances like the out-jutting jaw, and the eyes rolling back into the head when it bites down are here, giving it a sense of realism. This is a far cry from the rubber-and-steel rig that Spielberg used in Jaws, and even the mix of CG and animatronic sharks of 1999’s Deep Blue Sea. The shark in The Shallows is a glorious sight to behold, and even though the beast gets downright silly at the end, it makes for some tense, heart-pounding moments.
The Shallows is, on the surface, a one woman show, and Blake Lively excels in carrying the story on her beautiful shoulders. The computer-generated antagonist looks amazing, and the whole production is wonderfully shot and blocked by a director that demands to be noticed. Even as the climax of the film dips deep into nonsensical waters, the production, taken as a whole, is a fun, tense, and sometimes terrifying summer film that reminds viewers that nature is a beast, and sometimes, it’s still not safe to go into the water.
The Shallows is rated PG-13 and is in theaters now.
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