THE SHALLOWS

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THE SHALLOWS  * * *

Starring Blake Lively and a shark. Screenplay by Anthony Jaswinski. Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra. 

A famous quote apocryphally attributed to Stalin tells us “a single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” Things get pretty stats-heavy for Hollywood in the summer, with countless cities leveled and the fates of entire planets hanging in the balance up and down your local multiplex halls. Mass destruction is now a mass distraction, which is what makes something like The Shallows such a bracing alternative to blockbuster bloat.

It’s about one woman stuck in the water with a seriously nasty shark swimming back and forth between her and the shore. No more than that, and certainly no less, either. A finely crafted B-Movie at a time when nobody seems to know how to make those anymore, The Shallows is the kind of picture you used to see at the drive-in. Arriving during a summer when even a silly little haunted house flick like The Conjuring 2 gets blown out to over two-hours, this lean, mean scare machine is an unpretentious treat.

Blake Lively stars as Nancy, a med-school dropout surfing her way around Mexico. She’s happened upon a secret beach with no name, a paradise known only to the locals and to Nancy’s dear, departed mom. Still reeling from her mother’s death while fighting spitefully via FaceTime with her dad (Brett Cullen), Nancy is saddled with an unfortunately labored backstory that doesn’t really matter in the slightest once she steps into the drink with that hungry great white.

Director Jaume Collet-Serra teases out the tension, goosing us along with underwater shots from the shark’s point of view, admiring Lively’s legs as if not just for aesthetic reasons but also snacking purposes. He sticks to the Jaws playbook and keeps our antagonist hidden as much as possible, mining the scenes for maximum dread and sudden jolts — as when all of the water around Nancy abruptly turns crimson.

The film’s midsection finds our heroine clinging for life on an outcropping of rock, administering some self-surgery and making friends with a seagull she calls “Steven.” (Get it?) But in a few hours when the tide rolls in Nancy’s perch will be submerged once more and she’ll find herself a main course unless she figures out a way back to the beach. Anthony Jaswinski’s screenplay finds a pretty neat balance of being just preposterous enough that we can buy into The Shallows without feeling jerked around. The movie earns its jolts honorably.

A large part of this is due to Lively, an actress who hasn’t impressed me much in the past but here turns in a performance of brawny physicality and considerable intellect. Watching Nancy think her way through possible escape scenarios, it’s hard not to wish the film trusted its star a little more. On more than one occasion she gets stuck saying out loud what attentive viewers will have already put together. You’ll wonder why the heck she’s even speaking and then you realize it’s for the benefit of the slow kids talking and playing with their phones in the back of the theatre.

I also wasn’t crazy about the lily-gilding subplot here in which Nancy comes to terms with her mother’s death and decides to go back to medical school. This was a problem I also had with all that stuff about Sandra Bullock’s dead kid in Gravity, and it brings up a serious question I would like to ask Hollywood producers — are these characters’ situations not inherently sympathetic enough? You’ve got smart, beautiful women stranded all alone in impossible situations, trying not to get killed by flying space junk or aquatic death monsters, do you really have to pile on the family tragedies, too?

With their swift economy and crowd-pleasing payoffs, the best sequences in The Shallows would make legendary B-Movie impresario Roger Corman proud. The huckster genius might agree that when you’ve got a pretty girl in a bikini clinging to a buoy, shooting a flare gun at a great white, we don’t need to get into unresolved issues with her sister. The Shallows proves that less is more, and even less of it would have been even more.

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