By Dan Cava
June 24, 2016
The only depth one should reasonably expect from a shark movie is the distance between the ocean’s surface and the ocean’s floor, with enough room to fit a great white shark but not so much that we can’t see the color red bubbling up towards the sun. Most of the action is going to happen near the top anyway, where we can the see the fin, where there’s a boat or a reef to swim towards, where a well intentioned but ill-fated swimmer will disappear then wait-a-minute-where’d-he-go then okay-there-he-is then OH MY GOD THAT’S JUST HIS ARM, and so forth. Shark + water + human + small chance of survival = shark movie. It’s not marine biology.
For good reason, The Shallows might be 2016’s most successful movie title because it hints that the movie’s filmmakers knew exactly what they were getting into. The movie itself is nothing special, but in a sub-genre whose best movie has likely already been made (forty years ago by Mr. Spielberg), specialness is not the goal. Dust off the classic details, toss in a couple of new things to overcome, change up some of the stylistics, avoid unintended silliness, jolt us a few times, and call it a day at the beach.
The Shallows meets these meager expectations with ease, providing the tense woman-versus-shark fun it promises and, wisely, little less. There’s a pleasant efficiency at work here. After the script’s tidy B-movie setup conveniently establishes Blake Lively’s soon-to-be-stranded surfer girl Nancy as a lapsed medical student, the movie drops our heroine into a fetching bikini and wetsuit, then into the ocean and right into harm’s way. Director Jaume Collet-Serra’s eager camerawork keeps things paddling swiftly along, only treading water during the film’s thankfully few dialogue scenes. DP Flavio Labiano captures some colorfully crisp digital images, and editor Joel Negron constructs a handful of nice surprises in the film’s brisk 87-minute running time.
The movie’s ravenous and razor-toothed co-star is an effectively frightening mixture of practical and visual effects, but it’s Blake Lively’s willingness to sink her teeth into the lead role that truly keeps the movie afloat. The Shallows’ nifty narrative twist puts Nancy within eyeshot of the shore for most of the movie, with nothing but two hundred yards and a hella angry shark between her and safety. In what amounts to a mostly solitary performance (aside from a seagull with a broken wing, which is definitely not / maybe a metaphor for Nancy’s inner life), Lively avoids the movie’s swimsuit-model-in-peril possibilities by giving us reason after reason to believe in Nancy’s fierceness, intelligence, and desperation. It’s deceptively difficult to neither under- nor overdo do a monster-movie role like this, but Lively carefully modulates her intensity level like the pro that she is. It doesn’t take a real actor to scream “shark!”, but it does take one to make us care about the screamer.
Buoyed by a dedicated star and a decent sense of old-fashioned danger, The Shallows is a lean and likeable thriller that easily surpasses the low bar set by its shark movie genre-mates.
Star rating: 3 stars out of 5
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