Under shark attack in “The Shallows” and no Quint, Brody or Hooper around

Just in time for Shark Week on the Discovery Channel, “The Shallows” has hit the theaters and presents another ravenous Great White shark turning fun times into a nightmare.

Those sharks — they have been lurking in our collective fears ever since Chrissie Watkins took that fatal plunge into the ocean in the beginning of “Jaws” in 1975. That movie and its sequels paved  the way for seemingly hundreds of mostly cheesy ripoffs and eventually to the deliberately goofy “Sharknado” franchise. Luckily, the numerous documentaries on the mysteries of these magnificent fish help us to appreciate their beauty. Yeah, they, as Hooper said, “eat, swim and make little sharks, and that’s all.” But it’s Quint’s description of what they do when the dinner bell rings that is burned into our memory: “Swallow you whole. A little shakin;, a little tenderizin’, down you go.”

“The Shallows” has a lot going for it, including its stunning cinematography by Flavio Martinez Labiano — featuring some mind-blowing surfing scenes — a spare but tense screenplay by Anthony Jaswinski, excellent direction by Jaume Collet-Serra, and of course a grueling but winning performance by Blake Lively.

Collet-Serra directed the creepy “Orphan” (2009) and two Liam Neeson action films, “Non-Stop” (2014) and “Run All Night” (2015). So he knows how to keep things riveting.

But all the skills in the world can be wasted unless the person in front of the camera generates some interest. And that’s where Lively comes in.

As Nancy Adams, Lively (who is married to Ryan “Deadpool” Reynolds) presents a character who is likable from the start — smart and engaging. Nancy is a med student who is at a crossroads. In the wake of the death of her mother, Nancy is haunted by the futility of it all — for all the advances in medicine, her mother could not be saved. She is now considering terminating her medical studies.

In order to clear her head, Nancy takes a trip to a remote beach in Mexico, a place her mother visited a couple of decades earlier when she learned she was pregnant with Nancy. When her traveling companion flakes out of going to the beach after a night of heavy-duty parting, Nancy elects to go to the beach alone. Having earned her surfing chops riding the waves off the beaches of Galveston, Texas, Nancy easily can entertain herself.

Given a ride to the beach by a friendly local, Carlos (Oscar Jaenada), Nancy finds the beach to be a real paradise, far more stunning than the old photos she has stored in her mobile device can depict.

Eventually she hits the water to catch some waves. There are two other surfers there, and they turn out to be a couple of cool dudes. By late afternoon, the two guys decide it is time to head in, but Nancy opts to ride one more wave before calling it a day.

Before she can challenge the next wave, she spots something floating nearby. Closing in to investigate, she discovers in horror it is a mortally wounded whale. Even before she can hightail it away, a Great White attacks her, gashing her left leg.

Nancy initially manages to climb upon the nearly dead whale, but that is no safe place to be. She manages to make it to a small rock formation that can provide some refuge until the tide rises.

Once on the rock, Nancy’s medical expertise helps her deal with the nasty wound on her leg. In a wince-inducing scene, she uses whatever is at hand to close the wound.

Nancy is unable to wave down the two surfers as they drive away. Her only company, other than the food-obsessed menace circling around the premise, is an injured seagull she names Steven, of course.

Now it becomes a matter of survival. Nancy does not know if anyone else will show up on the beach. She only knows the shark seems to have staked a claim, and why not, with a helpless whale nearby to snack on.

Jaswinski’s script adeptly keeps the tension high, as well as taking the viewers on the wild emotional Nancy endures as her hopes rise, only to be dashed.

But the biggest asset of “The Shallows” is Nancy’s resilience. She refuses to curl up on the rock. She observes, analyzes and plots. All while dealing with excruciating pain and the possible onset of gangrene.

The human-versus-beast adventure can always be a thriller and a chiller, and “The Shallows” never lets up. And thanks to a tough yet sensitive performance by Lively, this movie is a nicely packaged horror story.

 

 

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