"The Shallows" Falls Short Of Shark Movie Greatness

Jaume Collet-Serra, director of strikingly stupid Liam Neeson thrillers “Non-Stop” and “Run All Night,” is back – with a shark attack movie! Even more, it stars two-time Teen Choice Award winner Blake Lively and a seagull, both rapturously devoted to not being eaten by a great white. The upshot is Collet-Serra’s best film to date, albeit one that can never quite get its handsomely lensed vistas and pulse-quickening terror on the same page. No, “The Shallows” is not a great movie, but it is an endurable one. Baby steps.

Lively plays Nancy, an emotionally wounded 25 year-old, soon to be physically wounded by two tons of masticating power. In her pilgrimage to a secret Mexican beach (the best kind) in honor of her late mother, she breaks out a smiley face surfboard and cuts up some of the clearest blue water ever put to film. The surfing scenes are dazzlingly photographed, consistently rising above the questionable CGI used to plaster Lively’s face over that of her stunt double.

Even though Anthony Jaswinski’s screenplay lurches through several hoops to explain why Nancy is all by herself, the end result works. She feels isolated and vulnerable, entirely alone but for a few straggling surfers (who are themselves a bit ominous). The predator versus prey metaphor is set up wonderfully; it’s there for the taking. But Collet-Serra only commits to it on the most basic of levels, soon paring the film down to ultra-straightforward survival horror. The visual language of the film reverts from textured nature film to basic cable movie and the suggestiveness that makes act I so intriguing all but vanishes.

Nancy is unceremoniously attacked by a massive great white, first taking refuge on the floating corpse of a dead whale, then on a slab of exposed rock that’s soon to be swallowed up by the rising tide. As day turns to night and night to day, Nancy (conveniently a med student) torturously tends to her wounds and those of her only companion, an injured seagull. The shark keeps circling.

The oft-maligned Lively gives a functional performance here, one that’s worlds better than her turns circa 2011 (“The Green Lantern” and “Savages”). It’s no small feat for an actor to carry a movie alone (the pic’s handful of supporting characters are less charismatic than placemats), but this isn’t Tom Hardy in “Locke” territory. Lively does some nice physical work that’s aided by a director who seems to be in love with his star. (The way the camera dotes on her is both sensual and uncomfortable.)

The movie’s carnage is especially worth noting. It’s surprisingly graphic for a PG-13 movie, giving it a punch that few shark films have ever had. Not “Jaws” (a much better film); not even the R-rated “Deep Blue Sea” (a much funnier film). There’s a raw power to the violence here, a power that Collet-Serra is more than happy to call on in the name of audience reaction. Seeing Nancy use her earrings as sutures is nothing short of excruciating. Then there’s a bumbling drunk crawling away from his own legs, which is as gross as it is amusing.

In a development that will shock no one, the picture’s final twenty minutes are egregiously stupid, undercutting the naturalistic horror that preceded it. The screenplay comes with the second worst cinematic use of jellyfish ever (the worst forever belongs to Will Smith’s “Seven Pounds”), where Collet-Serra’s most wrongheaded directorial tendencies come spilling out. Once the filmmaker starts indulging in some inexplicably loony visuals, the movie can’t recover, petering out in the way that dumb action movies tend to do. Yet, any movie with a great performance from a seagull has some intrinsic value.

“The Shallows” is just that, often ankle-deep and unable to see past its own snout. But there’s just as much good here as bad, suggesting that Jaume Collet-Serra might be more than inanely scripted Liam Neeson movies. Who knew?

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Mediocre)

Release Date: June 24, 2016
Studio: Sony Pictures
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Screenwriter: Anthony Jaswinski
Starring: Blake Lively, Oscar Jaenada, Brett Cullen, Sedona Legge
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for bloody images, intense sequences of peril, and brief strong language)