The giant dorsal fin of Steven Spielberg‘s “Jaws” casts a shadow on every other movie about human beings facing off against deadly sharks in the ocean. And while “Jaws” transcended its genre trappings to become art, “The Shallows” is a rousing, effective B-movie, and that’s an art in and of itself.
Director Jaume Collet-Serra isn’t a household name — in most non-Catalan-speaking households, anyway — but he’s a modern master of popcorn thrills. From the oh-no-you-didn’t twist of “Orphan” and the shameless horror of the “House of Wax” remake, to Liam Neeson‘s best post-“Taken” movies (“Unknown,” “Non-Stop,” “Run All Night”), Collet-Serra may not be bucking for an Oscar, but he certainly knows how to make moviegoers grab their armrests.
His action chops are cemented with “The Shallows,” which takes one of today’s most misbegotten combos — the PG-13 horror movie — and wrings it for every drop of suspense he can find. The movie is not going to make anyone forget “Jaws,” but it delivers the kind of breathless tension that justifies its existence.
Blake Lively stars as Nancy, a med-school dropout who has hitchhiked her way to a remote beach in Mexico that she last visited as an embryo in her mother’s tummy. It’s an idyllic location far off the grid — even the locals won’t tell this gringa tourist the name of the place, lest she spoil it — that offers perfect curls for Nancy to surf.
She meets a pair of fellow surfers (Angelo Josue Lozano Corzo and Jose Manuel Trujillo Salas), but after they swim to shore, Nancy decides to catch just one more wave. Alone in the sea, she’s surprised by the appearance of a pod of dolphins, and then notices that they’re swimming out to a giant floating whale carcass. Unfortunately for her, that whale is also a great white shark’s dinner, and she’s just made herself a garnish to the main course.
The receding tide reveals a small rock where Nancy avoids the shark — and has to use her medical know-how to stitch together a gash on her leg — but it will take all her ingenuity and will power to figure out how to make it back to the beach without getting chomped.
“The Shallows” offers a basic set-up in a confined space — one imagines a double-bill with “Buried,” starring Lively’s husband Ryan Reynolds — and Collet-Serra and screenwriter Anthony Jaswinski (“Satanic”) work every angle of suspense, from the time left before the tide goes back out to the frustrating nearness of the shore. It’s like a cross between “127 Hours” and “Open Water,” with rescue tantalizingly close and yet seemingly unreachable.
Jaswinski gives us just enough backstory on Nancy — she quit med school, will she quit trying to survive the shark? — and the script and direction balance the moments of relative calm with attacks and danger. Editor Joel Negron (“The Nice Guys”) will keep you clenched, and even composer Marco Beltrami, whose work usually gets in the way of the action, nicely underscores Nancy’s plight.
Lively appears in practically every shot of the film, and even if Collet-Serra and cinematographer Flavio Martínez Labiano (“The Gunman”) spend a little too much time accentuating her wet-suit cleavage and arching back in the early sequences, the actress ditches her surfer-girl glamour as the story moves along. She eloquently conveys panic and control, fear and perseverance throughout, and by the end, there’s something about her bikini-clad, not-gonna-take-it-anymore demeanor that suggests the heroines of countless 1970s drive-in features and TV movies-of-the-week that stoked the imagination of a young Quentin Tarantino.
“The Shallows” isn’t one for the ages, but it’s a skillful diversion for summertime moviegoers and will no doubt make a popular slumber-party scare generator, particularly for those close to a coastline.