*** (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Jaume Collet-Serra
STARS Blake Lively, Óscar Jaenada
Blake Lively in The Shallows (Photo: Columbia)
Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the sunlight following what's proving to be a rather desultory summer movie season, along comes The Shallows to drive everyone back into the deep end of the auditorium. Like the terrifying beast at its center, the film is a lean, mean, killing machine, getting on and off in a crisply efficient 85 minutes. And while it may be rated PG-13, it's a PG-13 that ranks on the high, Red end of the Terror Alert scale, particularly for its shot of a victim who looks like the After in a magician's sawing-a-woman-in-half trick gone wrong.
The opening scene, a flash-forward which takes places after much of the action has already transpired, is a mistake, since it strips away some of the piece's unpredictability. But we're then back at the beginning of the story, which finds a young American named Nancy (Blake Lively) journeying to a secluded Mexican beach, the same one her late mother visited while pregnant with her 25 years earlier. After enjoying some killer waves, Nancy soon finds herself terrorized by a killer shark, and although the rock on which she's stranded is a mere 200 yards from shore, the silent predator blocking her path means that the distance might as well be that from the earth to the moon.
Jaume Collet-Serra, usually found directing Liam Neeson through some dire predicaments (their joint resume consists of Unknown, Non-Stop and Run All Night), has managed to craft a thriller that's at least as memorable as 2003's Open Water, perhaps the last shark tale of note. Working from a suitably streamlined script by Anthony Jaswinski (who was probably tempted to change his name to Jawsinski to further get into the spirit of the piece), Collet-Serra is only forced to heavily rely on his CGI shark for the finale, opting instead to offer brief glimpses throughout most of the film.
Yet the true star of The Shallows isn't the junior Jaws but rather Blake Lively, who's in almost every scene of what's basically a one-woman show. Lively, whose big-screen career felt as if it were on life support until last year's The Age of Adaline allowed her to strut her stuff, is excellent in this picture, delivering a performance both physically and mentally demanding. Bringing full dimension to a character that was conceived with only a few brush strokes by Jaswinski, she's the primary reason the emotions in The Shallows run deep.