I don’t think it’s particularly provocative to say that, so far, this summer has been a bit of a letdown. While the box office is humming along just fine, there aren’t a lot of movies that people are really talking about. Maybe that’s why there seems to be such high hopes attached to the new Blake Lively shark movie, The Shallows. No one really expected it to be Jaws — or even especially “good” in the traditional sense of the word. But it does seem to pack the all-too-rare promise of being a perfectly stupid guilty pleasure. Which is precisely what it turns out to be. Lively doesn’t break new ground as an actress (even for her). The dialogue is pretty laughable. And it’s disappointingly light on gratuitously crunchy Great White gore. If you’re in the right mood, though, it’s a ridiculous, eye-rolling hoot: A sub-90 minute, check-your-brain-at-the-ticket-window diversion not unlike 1997’s Deep Blue Sea (minus the show-stopping Samuel L. Jackson death scene).
Directed by Spanish junk-food action maestro Jaume Collet-Serra with the same pulpy preposterousness he brought to Liam Neeson’s Unknown and Non-Stop, The Shallows stars Lively as Nancy Adams — a resourceful med school dropout who travels to Mexico to find the secluded beach her late mother spoke of with dreamy reverence. After her traveling companion gets sidelined by a hangover, the solo Nancy gets a lift to the white sand, turquoise water surfer’s paradise from a hunky Mexican local (Oscar Jaenada). The spot is as breathtaking as she imagined. Nancy waxes her board and strips down to an orange bikini, which Collet-Serra’s leering camera probably lingers on a couple beats too long. Then again, he isn’t exactly making The Suffragette here. He’s making a Blake Lively shark movie, and he knows precisely which side his bread is cocoa-buttered on.
Nancy meets a couple of local surfers armed with Go Pro cameras (which, like her med-school skills, will come in handy later) and hangs ten until they call it a day, leaving her all alone in the middle of nowhere. And that’s when the dinner bell gets rung. A 20-foot man-eating shark knocks Nancy off her surfboard and bites a deep gash into her leg, leaving her huddled for survival on a tiny rock outcropping that’s getting smaller and more precarious by the hour as the tide comes in. Nancy’s just 200 yards from the shore, but it might as well be 200 miles while the shark circles her like a hungry man waiting for his TV dinner to be done in the microwave. The clock is ticking, and all Nancy has is her wits, a silly knack for speaking her thoughts aloud, and a wounded seagull companion (played by Sully “Steven” Seagull, according to the end credits) who becomes her lifeline to sanity — her Wilson the volleyball. He may also be the most charismatic on-screen costar Lively’s ever had.
The Shallows wants to be the actress’ 127 Hours or All Is Lost, but it’s really just a goosed-up slice of drive-in exploitation about an easy-on-the-eyes woman in peril. It’s also unintentionally hilarious, as everything that can go wrong does, foiling Nancy’s MacGyver plans at every turn. You’re not exactly rooting for the shark, but you’re not really rooting against it either. Clocking in at a svelte 87 minutes, the film knows it audience and the limits of that audience’s patience with fare like this. Still, Collet-Serra and writer Anthony Jaswinski could have red-penciled some of Lively’s sillier lines while amping up the carnage. The film is so restrained that I wish they’d gone all-in and splurged for an R rating. At one point, a wino sleeping off a bender on the beach tries to swim out to steal her loose surfboard and instead of watching him get chomped into human chum, the camera lingers on Lively’s face for her reaction to the horror. She simply doesn’t have the skill to pull it off, and you end up feeling cheated. The sad part is, The Shallows could have been a really fun B-movie. And in a lot of ways, it is. There’s no denying that it has some great jump-scares and scratches a certain summer itch we all get this time of year. Too bad it’s a bit too watered down. B-