Most shark attacks occur in less than six feet of water. In many ways, that fact alone is scarier than just about anything in Jaume Collet-Serra’s “The Shallows” — unless you count the color of Blake Lively’s face, which some visual effects flunky inadvertently turned a seasick shade of green when digitally superimposing it onto surf double Isabella Nichols.
Like “The Deep” — the schlocky 1977 Peter Benchley adaptation immortalized by the sight of Jacqueline Bisset in a wet T-shirt — Collet-Serra’s more aptly named film recognizes that audiences tend to be a lot more interested in water-logged thrillers when there’s a pretty actress at stake. As the sexy alternative to the protagonists of “All Is Lost” (Robert Redford is too old) and “Life of Pi” (Suraj Sharma is too young), Lively plays Nancy, a med school student who faces off against a great white shark just a few yards from shore. While the movie goes out of its way to stress that Nancy survives as long as she does because of her intelligence, it’s her beach bod and bikini that will account for 90% of this thriller’s summer box office.
Lively may have been cast primarily for her physique, but she proves a compelling heroine all the same. Coping with a personal tragedy and looking for some alone time, Nancy seeks out her late mother’s favorite Mexican beach — a location so secret the crew evidently located it somewhere in Queensland, Australia. Normally, this is the sort of pilgrimage someone might make in order to scatter a loved one’s ashes, but Nancy comes empty-handed, except for her surfboard and smartphone. The latter serves two purposes: to deliver bare-bones exposition and to cross-promote parent company Sony’s latest high-tech gizmo — a reminder that most modern-day horror movies can be “solved” simply by calling the police.
Unfortunately for her, Nancy leaves her stylish Swiss Army phone on the beach and swims out to catch some waves. It’s a beautiful cove, and Collet-Serra and his camera crew (including surf d.p. Dwayne Fetch) lavish us with a gorgeous (if somewhat abstractly cut together) hang-10 montage featuring nice moves by Nancy and two unnamed Mexican surfers (one of whom wears his head-mounted GoPro camera straight into the shark’s mouth — a teaser offered as the movie’s half-effective opening thrill).
There’s something slightly off about the editing in the first act, signaling early on that Collet-Serra hasn’t spent nearly enough time studying Steven Spielberg. What a difference a John Williams score makes, especially when compared to the relatively suspense-less, all-digital stylings of composer Marco Beltrami, whose background music sounds like broken sonar equipment. As for Collet-Serra, not only does he fail to master the creepy shark’s-eye view, but he even botches that other Spielberg signature: the lingering, wide-eyed reaction shot. When Nancy first arrives on the beach, her mouth falls open, and instead of holding on her face, and then dramatically revealing what she sees, editor Joel Negron cuts to a fly-over helicopter view of the entire cove.
At times, it’s hard to tell whether “The Shallows” is trying to sell a tropical vacation, a Sony Xperia phone, or a fantasy date with Lively, but in any case, the film looks virtually indistinguishable from a slick, high-end commercial. The camera is right there at bust level when Nancy strips off her shirt to reveal a fluorescent orange bikini, and it shamelessly accentuates her curves as she paddles out to meet her fate, as if begging us to question which is more predatory: the shark or the lecherous gaze “The Shallows” affords its audience. The answer arrives soon enough in the film’s single most terrifying shot, in which the great white’s silhouette appears backlit against the last wave Nancy ever surfs — a vision as startling as the knife-wielding old lady who pulled back the shower curtain in “Psycho.”
The encounter leaves a nasty gash in Nancy’s leg, though she reacts quickly enough to avoid the fate that awaits the others who dare swim into the shark’s feeding ground. In the melee, a seagull also barely escapes a fatal encounter with the shark’s jaws, and over the course of the remaining hour, that bird becomes Nancy’s only companion. Together, they take refuge on a bit of rock located perhaps 200 feet from shore, tending to their wounds and feasting on tiny crabs, while hoping not to get eaten themselves. Depending on how spiritual one wants to get, the seagull could be seen as Nancy’s late mother, sent down to watch over her during this test of faith — not a bad way to interpret the dynamic, considering how lean the film is on context or backstory. Among the little we know about Nancy is the fact that her mom’s recent passing seems to have cramped her will to live, and there’s nothing like a near-death encounter to rekindle those survival instincts.
“The Shallows” remains mostly an exercise in pure cinema, wherein action drives the narrative and audiences are expected to extrapolate Nancy’s thoughts by watching how she handles any given situation. In the final stretch, logic snaps like the rusty chains holding the beach’s lone buoy in place, though there’s no denying that the movie is more exciting when Nancy is in the water than hiding out on that bit of reef, talking to a seagull. While observing Nancy’s problem-solving skills ought to come in handy should audiences ever find themselves in her position, the movie will undoubtedly save more lives simply by scaring audiences away from the water. After all, if the shallows aren’t safe, what is?