Bikini Kills: "The Shallows" lands preposterously but makes for gripping fun

The Shallows (2016)
87 min., rated PG-13.

Outside of 1975’s one-and-only “Jaws” and the dumb-fun likes of 1999’s “Deep Blue Sea” and 2011’s “Shark Night 3D,” a solid “killer shark thriller” is hard to come by, unless it’s being cheekily played for camp and involving Tara Reid and tornadoes. It comes as a pleasant surprise, then, that “The Shallows” is an auspicious addition to the genre and relocates the threat in a toothy fish again. Spending an entire movie with Blake Lively as she fends off and hopefully defeats a great white shark, this life-or-death survival thriller does exactly what it needs to do as its high-concept “‘Gravity’ in the Sea” logline would suggest and does it with a more-than-sufficiently tense sense of fun. Learning how to surf will most likely be deleted from many audience members’ bucket lists.

After losing her mother to cancer, medical school dropout Nancy Adams (Blake Lively) gets away from her home in Galveston, Texas for some me time. On vacation in Mexico, she makes her way to a private beach where her late mother frequented. She surfs the whole afternoon, taking in the waves with two locals, but when going out for one last wave, Nancy is attacked by a great white shark. She swims to a rock island protruding out of the water, grabbing her bloodied thigh with a bite wound and screaming for help. For the next 12 hours before the high tide rolls in, Nancy can’t do much, except wait for help to come or throw in the towel and risk swimming to shore. About 200 yards away from shore, Nancy is in quite a pickle, along with suffering from the cold temperatures, exhaustion and more injuries from the coral below, but might be able to take her chances in swimming to a buoy. Whatever happens, this tough cookie isn’t going to give up so easily.

“The Shallows” is an armrest-clenching B-movie with A-movie production values. Skillfully directed by Jaume Collet-Serra (who previously made stylishly gnarly horror films “House of Wax” and “Orphan” and then three Liam Neeson-driven thrillers in a row) and penned with a no-frills simplicity by Anthony Jaswinski (2014’s “Kristy”), the film provides enough backstory for Nancy—and mostly does it with economy—in order to make the viewer care if she gets out of this sticky situation alive or not. Blake Lively does a credible job of holding one’s attention, and not only from being easy on the eyes in a bikini for most of the film. Nancy isn’t MacGyver, but she comes close with her medical know-how and survival capabilities. Who knew you could stitch a shark wound by using an earring and a piece of a wet suit? It can be a challenge for an actor to sell lines that involve talking to him or herself, but Lively more than pulls off a one-woman show. Even when an attack takes place off-camera, everything we need to know is on Lively's emotive face. Despite the character having some handy medical knowledge, she forms Nancy into a resourceful and sympathetic born survivor to whom we can relate. As for the vicious man-eater himself, the computer-generated effects are seamless most of the time.

The pacing is pretty airtight at a just-right 85 minutes. There are tasty jolts and thrills sprinkled amidst the waiting game. As Nancy can’t move from her rock but shouts and waves her hands out to a beachcomber awaking from a drunken stupor onshore or the pair of surfers she met, there’s heart-pumping suspense in waiting for the appearance of a dorsal fin or the jaws of death to pull them under. There’s also well-placed humor, particularly in Nancy’s interaction with an injured seagull she names “Steven Seagull” (played by Sully) who’s like her Wilson to his Tom Hanks. And, with the film being shot on Lord Howe Island in New South Wales, Australia, Flavio Martínez Labiano’s cinematography is as attractive as any of John Stockwell’s aqua-related movies (“Blue Crush,” “Into the Blue,” “Turistas”). Some of the tension only lags with an overuse of slow-motion early on, but Collet-Serra and his editor sure do manage a foreboding, very cool silhouette of the shark in a wave as Nancy rides her last wave.

Except for a hokey, overly on-the-nose coda that reaches for emotional heft, “The Shallows” never bites off more than it can chew. It is giddily suspenseful, to-the-point summer popcorn entertainment with as much flab on its narrative bones as Blake Lively has on her athletic waist. Going in, the film doesn’t demand much suspension of disbelief until the final act, which kicks into high gear and keeps topping itself with one preposterous setup followed up with an even more preposterous payoff. And yet, Nancy’s final face-off is no less crowd-pleasing as when Chief Brody uttered, “Smile, you son of a bitch!” before blowing up the pesky great white to bits. The climax may be improbable but it’s fun, and fun is all that really matters here. Director Jaume Collet-Serra probably isn’t out to make high art, but for the number of times a modest thriller can’t even be executed well on its own terms, making an effective one might as well be a kind of lost art. We already have “Jaws,” and now “The Shallows” can swim in the same water.

Grade: B