“The Shallows”: fun summer movie you can feel good forgetting about

the shallows

Grade: B-

Verdict: See it once for the experience, then forget it. “The Shallows” doesn’t offer more than 90 minutes of semi-scary distraction, but that’s fine with me.

It took me a long time to see “The Shallows,” mostly because I figured a re-watch of “Jaws” would sate me. And you know what, it probably would have, but I’m pleased to say Jaume Collet-Serra’s new shark flick wasn’t a waste of money. It’s not great, but shapes up into a decent survival thriller with some effective B-movie tension and scares. In sum: see it once, feel a little tense, forget about it forever. Summer blockbuster bliss.

Blake Lively plays Nancy– by the way, am I the only one who thinks this is too outdated a name for a protagonist? Who’s named Nancy anymore?– a Texas surfer visiting her recently deceased mother’s favorite beach in Mexico. Through a lot of expository texting and facetiming on a Sony phone (gotta get that product placement) we learn that Nancy, shaken after her mom’s death, has abandoned medical school to travel and escape the bad feels. Her dad and sister want to know when she’s coming back to Texas, but she just shakes her head forlornly and dodges the question.

All that’s pretty boring, but the movie picks up when Nancy finally gets her gorgeous butt in the water. Or starts to pick up, anyway, because first we have to sit through some surfing beauty shots as she and two local boys shred the waves, or whatever the surfing lingo is these days. The first thirty minutes of the film feel like a really extended Sony commercial, complete with weirdly edited shots of hot 20 somethings and a totally unlistenable electronic score by Marco Beltrami that screams “aimed at kids!”

The fun begins when the shark actually shows up, Nancy’s leg gets effed, and she’s stranded on a rock with an injured seagull.

I use “shows up” to describe the shark’s appearance quite literally. This is no “Jaws” with its fin and score suggesting a shark. Here we see it in full the first moment it knocks her off her board.

We see quite a lot of the shark, in fact, launching at us and her and generally swimming around menacingly, occasionally providing a jump scare. I’m not a big fan of those, I don’t like that they’re only momentarily effective and therefore weak to hang a whole movie on (which is why “The Witch” is such fab horror… there’s maybe one jump scare in the whole thing? If any?) Mystery is better, I say, and hiding the monster from us, building tension, is generally a better bet for long-lasting uneasiness.

That said, I don’t mind them here, in this movie designed for fleeting moments. The occasional shark-pop fits, and we do get some well-enough crafted “where is the shark, is the shark here, is the shark not here” moments that provide some sweet, effective jitters.

There’s a lot of sentimental goop interspersed, with the injured bird standing in for her dead mom and a scene in which she’s recording a really drawn out– seriously, way too long– message to her family on a Go-Pro. That stuff gets in the way of the visceral fun that makes the movie work: when she’s thrashing around, suturing her own wounds with her earrings (blech, ick, wow, that was uncomfortable), dodging the shark, trying and failing to save herself.

That’s the core of the movie, and a big part of why I liked it, but it’s not the only reason. My favorite part, really, was the ending.

Ah yes. The ending. Nancy’s final battle with the shark is, well, ridiculous. A total tonal shift from the tension. Breathtaking.

I wonder if screenwriter Anthony Jaswinski understands how wacko his script is, whether he intended it. Collet-Serra seems to. The film is occasionally beautiful, and the tension real; it feels well put together technically, despite some editing snafus and the terrible music and all the product placement. Put together just well enough that the ending feels like a punchline to an elaborate deadpan joke. “Scary scary scary… hilarious! Get it?” That kind of deal. I don’t know Collet-Serra’s work intimately, but I hear he has a ridiculous streak in him– I like to think the ending allowed him to stretch after some “dramatic” directing.

Then again, maybe not. Maybe the ending felt real to writer and director. Whatever the case, it’s still great. We still get to revel in its wackyness and ride its exuberant high.

“The Shallows” won’t keep me out of the water this summer, but it served its purpose in the moment. I’ll probably never think about it again after this review is posted. But as I sat in that theater, chewing my already nubbish fingernails down to extra nothing, I got to be scared and amused and bored by turns. Refreshingly mindlessly so. Sometimes it’s nice to walk out of a movie knowing that you’ve taken everything you can from it, to enjoy the experience and forget it. This is definitely one such flick.