The Shallows (2016)

Amid the chum of bloated CGI blockbusters in the summer multiplex ocean arises the fin of the best little shark movie in years.

Blake Lively (“Gossip Girl”) plays a young woman grieving the recent loss of her mother who returns to the hidden, tropical Mexican beach oasis that she first discovered with her mom years ago. She has recently dropped out of medical school (I wonder if this will come in handy later?) to get her head together on a series of solo sojourns that have eventually led her to this secluded paradise for an afternoon of soul searching and surfing.

The first thing that will take your breath away in “The Shallows” is the beautiful cinematography of Flavio Martinez Labiano, who captures the natural exotic beauty and crystal clear, turquoise waters of the film’s only central location under the direction of filmmaker, Jaume Collet-Serra. Collet-Serra has developed an actor/director working relationship with Liam Neeson over the last few years with “Unknown,” “Non-stop” and “Run All Night.”

The second thing that will take your breath away is the stunning physical beauty of Collet-Serra’s new leading lady, Blake Lively, who claims to have endured 13 hour daily workouts on the open water while shooting this sharp toothed thriller. The camera loves Lively, who as the only central character in a one woman show (other than an injured Seagull and a hungry and single-minded Great White Shark), must also carry the entire picture on her acting skills. Lively rises to the challenge as surely as the fin of the movie’s aquatic alpha predator villain.

The third thing that will take your breath away is the 20 foot killing machine with razor teeth that stalks Lively after she accidentally takes her surfboard too close to the carcass of a dead whale a few hundred yards off shore that has become the snacking ground of a Great White shark. The film’s special effects are so convincing that I could never tell whether I was seeing real shark footage, CGI or practical effects. The filmmakers get every penny out of their reported $17 million budget.

The last hour of the film is a chess game played between predator and prey on a limited game board. Stranded on a jagged rock a hundred yards or so from shore with only a Seagull with a dislocated wing to keep her company. Lively must deal with her grievous wounds, the rising tide, razor sharp coral beds, schools of stinging Jellyfish, dehydration, exhaustion and—oh yeah, a killer Great White shark that’s willing to wait for her to get into the water for as long as it takes so it can gobble her up.

On the game board, there’s the whale carcass, the rock and a lonely, anchored marker buoy as potential safe havens and/or hazards. Lively’s character must use her wits and absolutely everything she can turn into a tool or a weapon to survive. Collet-Serra dangles hope and crushes the spirit just as quickly, scoring at least one genuine jump scare along with sustained tension to deliver a cracking shark thriller worthy of the legacy of “Jaws.”

The Shallows” is cinematic storytelling at its’ simplest, most primal level. If you’re expecting something bigger, you’ll likely come away disappointed, but if you can enjoy an intimate woman-vs-nature thriller with a couple of fairly bloody PG-13 deaths, “The Shallows” is the perfect summer vacation from splashier, $200 million CGI spectacles.

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