No thanks to SyFy for turning sharks into laughable sideshow acts with their ridiculous Sharknado movies, but it's good to be reminded that we're actually supposed to be terrified of these aquatic predators. That's what Jaume Collet-Serra's survival thriller The Shallows does, to modest effect anyway, by having a lone surfer come face-to-nose with a hungry shark. The setup is lean, the star is Blake Lively, and for 60 of its 80+ minute runtime the film has some serious teeth, until the final stretch bites off more than it can chew.
Lively, whose stark Hollywood beauty causes many to either hate or underestimate her, commits fully to the role of Nancy, a Texas gal on vacation in Mexico to surf a beach that held special relevance to her late mother. Everything we need to know about her is wrapped up in five minutes: med school dropout, kind of a boring homebody, strained relationship with her father. What more do we need to know? Get to the "Shark Week" portion of the show, already.
It doesn't take long. Nancy hits the waves with a couple local dudes, but decides to stick around for just one more ride. It's the cinematic equivalent of "one last job"; it always goes sideways. Literally in this case as Nancy is knocked off her board by a massive and seemingly-brilliant shark that proceeds to chomp through her leg. Much of the film finds Nancy stuck on a rock, bleeding, contemplating her escape options, and conversing with an injured seagull. There's a chance you may care more about the seagull than Nancy, or at least just as much.
Cinematographer Flavio Labiano knows what he has in Lively as his camera never stays away from her beach body for too long. But she's more than just a pretty face, adapting to some of the film's cornier elements, such as the chatty relationship she has with her feathered companion, and fully committing to the physical aspects. The most difficult of those to stomach is Nancy's improvised stitching of her wounds, using pretty much whatever she can find. It's not pretty, but it goes to establishing Nancy as smart and resourceful when in an unusual jam, and they don't get much more unusual than this.
Screenwriter Anthony Jaswinski finds humor in some unusual places, such as a potential savior who turns out to be a drunken, larcenous bum; or a flare gun that might as well have been designed by ACME. What Jaswinski doesn't do is trust that the shark is enough of a menace on its own. The final stretch, in which Nancy confronts the beast in a last ditch effort to survive, is piled on with one unbelievable aspect after another to artificially raise the stakes. What had been a tense, taut thriller about one woman's attempt to outsmart a primal force becomes something to be chuckled at. The Shallows isn't quite scary enough to keep you out of the water, but it'll at least make you think twice about it.
Rating: 3 out of 5