Spanish helmer Jaume Collet-Serra, who directed Liam Neeson in “Unknown,” “Non-Stop,” “Run All Night,” and has plans for another film with Neeson entitled “The Commuter,” must have felt that pitting his favorite Irish actor against a ferocious Great White shark would be unfair to it. Instead, Collet-Serra has “Age of Adaline” actress Blake Lively contend with this colossal Carcharodon carcharias in “The Shallows” (*** OUT OF ****), an entertaining, often suspenseful, but largely improbable B-movie survivalist saga. Summer movies are typically sprawling, impersonal, and larger-than-life blockbusters, about clashes between titans and extraterrestrials, such as “Captain America: Civil War,” “X-Men: Apocalypse,” “Independence Day: Resurgence,” “Warcraft,” and “Teenage Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows.” Although Collet-Serra’s film boasts a pugnacious predator roughly the size of a medium-class submarine, “The Shallows” remains more personal in scope than traditional summer fare. The exploits depicted in this Sony/Columbia Pictures release do not pose a threat to civilization as we know it. Indeed, the events occur in relative anonymity without television networks broadcasting commentary about them as they unfold. Ultimately, nobody knows what is happening until the narrative concludes. Aside from Blake Lively, “The Shallows” features only seven actors, six relatively unknown males and one female confined to supporting roles. Not only does Lively play a sympathetic character, but also you cannot take your eyes off her while she is locked into life-and-death combat with a tenaciously toothy terrornaut that doesn’t know when to quit. Comparably, “The Shallows” reminded me of the grim finale in Ridley Scott’s classic, 1979, sci-fi shocker “Alien.” Virtually the entire crew of the ill-fated, space merchant vessel Nostromo had died in a fight with an indestructible space monster whose blood was as corrosive as acid. The last survivor, sexy Sigourney Weaver, had slipped into something comfort to go to sleep for the long voyage home when she discovered to her horror that she was sharing her escape spacecraft with that fearsome fiend. Similarly, after about fifteen minutes of watching shapely Blake arrive at a remote stretch of scenic beach, strip down to a bikini, and plunge into the bay for a little surfing, the infamous shark shows up without fanfare and turns out to be quite the scene stealer for the remaining 72 white-knuckled minutes. Essentially, what Jaswinski and Collet-Serra have wrought amounts to a synthesis of “Jaws,” “Blue Crush,” and “Soul Surfer.”
Nancy Adams (Blake Lively of “Savages”) has just withdrawn from nursing school. The gruesome experience of watching her long suffering mother succumb to cancer has devastated her. Nancy just wants to retreat and ponder her future. She remembers her pregnant mother told her about a secret stretch of beach in Mexico that she had gone to while she was carrying her. A friendly native gives Nancy a lift in his battered pick-up truck through the jungle to the beach, and the beach looks like a dream with its azure skies, creamy surf, and faraway islands forming a barrier against the ocean. Initially, Nancy came with a girlfriend, but her girlfriend left her for a cute guy. Alone but content, Nancy swims out into the secluded bay and encounters two other surfer dudes. Their English is as inadequate as her Spanish, and they share some waves before they hang it up. Afterward, Nancy spots a gigantic rotting whale carcass adrift and investigates it before making her final surf for the day. As she is riding the crest of a wave, a Great White shark smashes into her like a torpedo and topples her off her surfboard. The shark chomps on her left thigh, but Nancy finds sanctuary on a small outcropping of rock fewer than 200 yards from shore. This sinister shark cruises in circles around her like a war party of Apaches rampaging around a wagon train of pioneers in the Old West. Nancy uses pieces of jewelry to stitch up her chewed up thigh, but she fears the onset of gangrene if she isn’t rescued soon. Soon, however, isn’t going to be soon enough, and she is trapped at the mercy of the shark. Talk about a tight-spot!
“The Shallows” never wears out its welcome. “Kristy” scenarist Anthony Jaswinski and Collet-Serra observe all the standard conventions of vintage suspense thrillers. They isolate our valiant heroine and subject her to one frightening predicament after another, and she must rely on her own savvy and stamina. Occasionally, when Nancy cannot outwit her adversary, the filmmakers create obstacles that the shark cannot overcome in its ravenous lust to make her into mincemeat. For example, a steel hook embedded in its jaw gets snagged on a buoy, and the Great White wallows turbulently before it dislodges itself and renews its feverish attack. At other times, the shark deals with marine life such as a school of jelly fish and the craggy underwater terrain that thwarts its momentum. The irony is that our heroine is–as the title indicates– in shallow waters instead of far out in the briny blue deep. The Great White shark appears sufficiently menacing, and computer-generated visual effects are top-notch. The predator’s initial appearance through a wave is ominously dramatic. If you’ve seen the trailer, the scene where the Great White lurches above the waves to gobble a surfer is sensational stuff. The whale carcass that our heroine initially takes refuge on until the shark forces her to abandon it looks pretty realistic, too. The shift into tone and atmosphere from dream to nightmare for Nancy is very palatable, too. Although this woman-in-jeopardy nail-biter is set Mexico, the filmmakers lensed it on location in sunny Australia. Of course, “The Shallows” doesn’t surpass Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” with its atmospheric music and its charismatic ensemble male cast. In a scene reminiscent of the “Jaws” finale when Roy Schneider fires a rifle at the shark that kills it, our heroine appropriates a flare pistol and fires it at the marauding shark. Characterization remains on the lean side since Blake Lively’s solitary surfer is the only three dimensional character on display. Nevertheless, just as “Jaws” exploited our anxieties about splashing around in the sea without a second thought, “The Shallows” may make you think twice about wading into surf.
“Your imagination can take you where nothing else can.” Van Roberts