Movie Review: The Shallows

A relatively low budget shark attack film is one of the summer's better offerings

The Shallows
Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra
With Blake Lively

Shark films had a heyday in the mid-1970s, and after running out of ideas (and vicious sea creatures such as wales and octopuses) the genre slowly sank. That was of course about four decades ago, now.

The idea of a relentless killer shark has swum back onto cinema screens with The Shallows. The film tries to be a counterpoint to the special-effects laden extravaganzas with huge casts of stars meant to cut across different demographic groups. The Shallows, for most of it running time, has just actress Blake Lively, as surfer Nancy Adams, stranded on a rock just off of an isolated beach in Mexico, with a hungry shark preventing her from getting back to shore.

It is a bare-bones plot, but a refreshing change from some of the convoluted machinations of the other summer action films. While the obvious comparison is to Steven Spielberg's 1975 horror film Jaws, it is actually a bit closer to the 2003 thriller Open Water, which had two people accidentally left behind in the sea during a diving expedition.

So while it is not exactly original, it is effective. Blake Lively has a small opportunity to create a sympathetic character. She explains to a truck driver that she wants to go to an isolated and unnamed beach that her mother went to before she was born. The mother had died recently. She interacts with a couple of male surfers and manages to hold her own, being polite enough but managing to keep her own space. He also proves to be an impressive surfer.

She does not want to leave the beach at the same time as the two men who were flirting with her, but right as they are driving off she is attacked by a shark that had followed a dead whale into the isolated alcove.

The rest is all woman versus shark, with a few other hazards like stinging coral and jellyfish thrown in.

The film runs just 86 minutes, and that is long enough. The minimalist plot begins to wear a bit thin, as the setting only allows for so many variations on the theme of the shark attacking and the surfer somehow evading it.

She does early on use her phone, which oddly can get a signal so far from civilization. This allows for a bit more of her personal story to be told. She does no have the phone when she is out in the waves, though, for obvious reasons.

Lively's character, Nancy, proves to be resourceful, and thankfully gets beyond the stereotype of a damsel in distress. Her strong character is a big plus for making the film believable.

The shark is seen seldom, usually just the fin in the water or an ominous ripple. The teeth and open jaw come into play a few times, but sparingly. The unseen monster being scarier than the seen one has been long proven effective, from 1942's original Cat People up through Alien in 1979. It is also a good way to save on the budget, as The Shallows was reportedly made for under $20 million, a fraction of the cost of a blockbuster.

Blake Lively in real life is married to Ryan Reynolds, who appeared in another minimalist thriller called Buried Alive, where he spends the film buried underground with just a phone and flashlight. She said she wanted to try a similar project, as it proved to be a good experience for Reynolds.

She is best-known for her work in the TV show Gossip Girl, and has had a handful of film roles, ranging from comic book films like Green Lantern to romantic fantasies like The Age of Adaline, but so far no big hits.

After carrying this basically one-woman show, she should rise up a bit in the star ranking. Being trapped on a rock alone in the water is not an easy role to make interesting.

The direction by Jaume Collet-Serra is solid enough but without many surprises. He previously directed as the disappointing 2005 remake of House of Wax, as well as some thrillers with Liam Neeson including Unknown, Non-Stop and Run All Night. Collet-Serra has learned the art of suspense and was able to deliver enough thrills from the concept. The score by Marco Beltrami was a bit of a letdown, because try as it might to be original, it just couldn't stop sounding like a lesser version of the theme from Jaws.

But if the parade of comic book films and CGI extravaganzas have left you hoping for some old-school summer thrills, The Shallows is worth wading in to.

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