Spanish born film director Jaume Collet-Sera has made a name for himself in Hollywood with a series of well-received action thrillers headlined by a manly Liam Neeson, and all elevated above their B-movie status by a steady application of nerve-shredding suspense. And for The Shallows, Collet-Sera is back to his pulse pounding ways, but just swapping out one great white predator for another more literal one.

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The Shallows sees Blake Lively as Nancy Adams, a med-student/surfer girl who takes a soul searching trip to Mexico on a quest for a secret beach famously visited by her recently deceased mother. Unfortunately, while out surfing all alone in this secluded spot, she comes face to toothy face with an aggressively territorial shark, leaving her bloodied and injured on a shallow reef far from shore, with her sharky assailant ever circling for the kill. As the incoming high tide threatens to eliminate her precariously safe perch, Nancy has to use wits and grueling physical feats to try to make it back to shore safely.

And really, that is essentially all there is to The Shallows. Okay, so there is the overarching emotional subtext of how this walkabout was Nancy’s way of (not) dealing with her mom’s lost battle against sickness – something which hits even harder for somebody training to heal people – and how she has to draw inspiration from that personal tragedy to not give up hope in the face of this nightmarish personal crisis. There’s also some very hastily thrown in commentary on peeling our faces away from technology to instead appreciate the natural beauty around us. But really, you’re here to see if the blonde girl with the cute smile can beat a monstrous shark who is single-mindedly intent on having her as a mid-morning snack.

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In that regard, The Shallows works gangbusters as it plays out as a series of unnerving attempts by the busted up Nancy, using everything from surfing debris to whale carcasses – a buffet leftover from the shark’s most recent kill and the reason for its territorial nature – to edge ever closer to that paradise dry land.

Aided by Marco Beltrami’s ominous score, Collet-Sera constantly ratchets up tension to unbearable levels, using every trick in the shark attack movie book – but somehow managing to transcend their trope-ishness – to keep you perched on the edge of your seat. Or as I can personally attest after watching the movie with my wife over the weekend, having your partner gouge troughs into your shoulder as the razor-wire taut suspense gets the better of them. The director executes most of these moments of terror so well that your squirming brain probably won’t even register the very briefly shaky CGI sometimes used to bring the shark to life. These exercises in shortening the lifespans of audience members is also made all the more engrossing by a fantastically believable turn by Lively.

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This will probably not net the ex-CW star any serious and stuffy awards buzz, but as the sole human component on-screen for most of this movie, she carries it exceptionally well. Lively lives up to her namesake disposition, giving her an easy going likability that immediately has you rooting for her. And while the personal drama components of screenwriter Anthony Jaswinski’s script act merely as a wider narrative framework, Lively sells it ably enough so that it never feels tacked on or cheesy. Also, if her incredibly realistic field medical operations don’t leave you squirming away in your seat until you grind your spine to powder then you’re certainly made of sterner stuff than I am. All in all, Lively’s movie-carrying turn here left me wondering why she doesn’t get more top billing than she does. Maybe she can get her Brie Larson moment as well soon?

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Unfortunately, there is a “but” in all of this praise though. The film has an appreciably trim 86 minute running time, meaning Collet-Sera and co never need to slot in unnecessary narrative detours to their aquatic rollercoaster ride. But even with that relatively shorter screen time, I would still have preferred to have just reviewed only 80 out of its 86 minutes. For all its extremely gripping lean and sinewy action, the conclusion to Nancy’s mano a sharko ordeal is a simply ludicrous bit of Hollywood bunkum that feels completely out of touch with the grounded terror that comes before it. To paraphrase: This is the way the world ends – not with a bang, but with a fishy “WTF?!”

And with everything else boasting such rapid-fire popcorn-munching goodness, it’s a real pity that the filmmakers can’t stick the landing here. But those rather silly few minutes near the end aside, Collet-Sera’s mercilessly relentless directing coupled with Lively’s engrossing physical performance still make The Shallows a toothy, thrill-a-minute ride.

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Last Updated: August 30, 2016

The Shallows
Summary
7

Kervyn Cloete

A man of many passions - but very little sleep - I've been geeking out over movies, video games, comics, books, anime, TV series and lemon meringues as far back as I can remember. So show up for the geeky insight, stay for the delicious pastries.

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