The Shallows July 4, 2016
She’s not Bo Derek and she’s not a wet white T-shirt wearing Jackie Bisset, either. Contrary to the publicity campaign that has kept me remembering the image of the bodacious Blake Lively in a bikini more than it has tickled my lusting for a summer thrill, The Shallows isn’t a latter-day monster movie with exploitation solely on the mind. In a surprise twist I was initially incapable of foreseeing, The Shallows is, rather, a survival film that announces Blake Lively as a promising starlet. As an actress whose portfolio is less geared toward that of your average artiste (she’s most famous for her work in CW teen soap Gossip Girl and girlhood classic Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants), it’s appropriate, humorous even, that the movie proving her as a force to be reckoned with has her battling a toothy fish unable to get over his enormous ego.
The movie has been touted as the best shark movie since Jaws, but I think the exaggerative and thoroughly arguable exclamation has more to do with the fact that a superb creature feature has been hard to come by in recent years than it has to do with quality. But since The Shallows is better than it has any right to be, it comes decently close to Jaws’s eternally terrifying majesty; it’s certainly an improvement on 1999’s Deep Blue Sea (which I cherished), and is miles finer than the oddly inescapable Sharknado television franchise.
Much of The Shallows’s efficiency has to do with how well it executes its premise, which could call for skepticism if its writing (by Anthony Jaswinski) and if its direction (by Jaume Collet-Serra) were sloppy instead of exceedingly tense. Simply, it involves a young, sexy surfer’s (Blake Lively) terrorization by a Great White Shark that leaves her severely injured and clinging to a rock formation two-hundred yards from shore. The shark, of course, circles around her (and eats all possible help) as she contemplates different ways to survive.
But in addition to its likable simplicity (overblown blockbusters are much more common than I’d prefer), revitalizing is how cordial The Shallows is toward the intelligence of its protagonist and the audience watching her. Lively’s heroine, the scrappy Nancy, is a tough cookie with plenty of brains, so adept at navigating her surroundings that we’re barely given a chance to scoff at an action she makes. Much of the film’s attitude is tipped toward the Do or Die spectrum of courageousness, and Jaswinski’s screenplay beautifully sets up The Shallows in a way that leaves us gasping for air as Nancy showcases her enviable survival skills. We both root for her and wretch with overwhelming anxiety. The film is a gnarly thrill ride that does everything right; it’s a B-picture made A because of its unexpected acumen (therefore excusing its deplorable, if pleasing to the eye, slo-mo enhanced cheesecake shots).
So nevermind the fact that it’s unthinkable for Lively’s character to go surfing on a mostly deserted hidden beach in the depths of Mexico with little contact to the outside world (she has good reasoning, anyway), that it’s unthinkable that she just so happens to be a medical student, that it’s unthinkable that she’d have just the right earrings and array of necklaces to aid her in stitching up her gashing wounds, or that it’s unthinkable for a water dwelling beast to be so unhinged. As long as your heart’s pounding obnoxiously and you find yourself really and truly pining to see how it all works out, you know that you’re in the presence of a thriller that works. Forget that it isn’t high art: on a hot summer night, surrounded by a world of predictability and seasonal indulgence, a grubby kicker of The Shallows's brand is worth something, even if that something is as ultimately forgettable as the type of ice cream and conversation you had immediately after leaving the theater. B+