"This looks like a Corona commercial that's got out of hand," my plus one whispered to me during the opening scenes of The Shallows. As a first impression, he wasn't wrong. This monster thriller shows what happens when you take a blond surfer babe, chuck her on a rock in the middle of the ocean, and invite a bloodthirsty shark over for dinner. Not before many gratuitous bum shots, and a too-tight wetsuit that works as the world's best Wonderbra. It's no lie that if they had put a bottle of icy brew in her hand, they would have shifted a lot of units.
As sure as the tide, the blockbuster shark movie has drifted inshore periodically since that diva Roy Scheider had a big whinge about needing a bigger boat. Some of them have been excellent, like the low-budget, every-diver's-nightmare, Open Water. Some have been terrible, like the seemingly never-ending manufactured B-grade franchise, Sharknado. Luckily, The Shallows is more reminiscent of the former, a genuinely tense, race-against-the-clock thriller starring a big mean shark and Blake Lively, the head honcho from Gossip Girl.
The premise of the film is achingly simple. Lively plays Nancy, a free spirit who has dropped out of medical school to surf on the most remote beach in Mexico. What's the beach called? She doesn't know, nobody will tell her. Surely that won't be important later. Irritating phone screen graphics fill us in on the rest of her story. Her mum is dead but surfed at that same beach when she was pregnant. Her buddy back at the hostel is too hungover to join her. So far, so ham-fisted. Once it's been hammered home that she is well and truly isolated, with only a creepy pair of local surfers nearby, the fun really starts.
After what feels like an hour of Blue Crush surf montage, the film shifts tone abruptly. Finding herself in the middle of a great white shark's feeding ground, Nancy is well and truly up the proverbial creek without a surfboard. Stranded miles offshore on a tiny rock island with a giant bleeding leg gash, and only a few hours until the tide rises, Blake Lively could easily become ... Blake Deadly. What transpires is a horrific exercise in lateral thinking, like a future problem solving class in school but your teacher will literally bite your head off if you make the wrong move.
Lively does a remarkable job of portraying a woman in a hopeless place, even if she does indulge in a little too much hiccup-crying. It's a tall task to sell a shamelessly popcorn premise as reality, but her desperate descent from fear to fight is every bit as gripping and bold as Serena van der Woodsen's wardrobe in Gossip Girl. Even then, she's not the star of the show. No disrespect, but Steven Seagull gives the strongest performance as a very cute stranded bird who becomes her version of Castaway's Wilson.
The film is a seemingly hopeless plight, kind of like 127 Hours at sea, with the toothy threat ever-circling her shrinking safe zone. Luckily, director Jaume Collet-Saura had the restraint to tease the monster until it absolutely has to be on screen, a handy choice considering the CGI is often shonky. What we see instead is bloodied torsos, chilling GoPro footage and endless underwater POV shots, all confirming that what lies beneath is very, very bad. This tension does nothing but build towards a stunningly surreal finale that the Sharknado team wished they had dreamed up. It's no Jaws, but The Shallows is still a viciously, violently fun wave to ride.