Who doesn’t want to see a hot blonde in a bikini get attacked by a great white shark? That kind of crass Hollywood thinking is all you need to spawn a summer throwaway like The Shallows; it’s one of those movie titles that serves as its own review. But while this nailbiter sure as hell ain’t swimming in the same classic waters as Jaws, it gets the jolting job done.
Blake Lively, who’s always been a better actress then her Gossip Girl beginnings would suggest, plays Nancy, a med student looking for some alone time on her late mom’s favorite Mexican beach. Armed with a surfboard and a cell phone, Nancy uses FaceTime chat to call home and establish her Texas backstory. Her kid sister wishes she could join her. Her dad is still angry that Nancy wants to drop out of medical school — mom’s death hit her hard. At first, Nancy encounters a different kind of predator. Two Mexican surfer dudes are already in her space in the otherwise deserted cove. And one’s conveniently wearing a GoPro camera on his head. They casually hit on her to join them. She smiles but hangs back.
Hey, wait, how much setup can thrill-seeking audiences endure? Director Jaume Collet-Serra (Non-Stop) and screenwriter Anthony Jaswinski feel you pain. That’s why they start the movie with a flash-forward in which a young boy finds the camera on the beach and the video footage shows the surfers getting gobbled up good by the shark. Now we’re talking.
Back on the beach, we watch Lively’s stunt double hang 10 and ride a huge wave in which the shark can be seen in chilling outline. Otherwise Nancy’s alone out there. Previously, the guys — no slouches at exposition — had told her about a jagged rock 200 yards off shore that you can only see at low tide. Will Nancy need that rock when the shark strands her in the water? Will studios continue to charge top dollar for tickets to movies that strain credulity to the snapping point?
The rest of the movie shows Nancy and the shark dueling for dominance. Given her medical training, our heroine can turn a wet suit into a tourniquet or use her necklace to stitch up a nasty gash. As Nancy waits for a rescue, she pours out her feelings to a wounded seagull who seems to represent her dead mom. (I’m figuring the shark is a symbolic warning not to quit school.) It’s all patently ridiculous. But Collet-Serra and Lively show no mercy in hooking us with the B-movie tension. And we bite.