As “The Shallows” opens, Nancy Adams (Blake Lively), a Texan on a finding-herself safari to Mexico in the apparent wake of her mother’s passing, is being ferried to a secret surfing beach, one her mother visited long ago, by a kindly local named Carlos (Oscar Jaenada). In this sequence, Lively’s sunny demeanor evinces an ease with people and the world around her. Even if we sense the tragedy of her character’s past, we feel the joy she feels from looking forward to the spiritual cleanse of catching a few waves in the pristine sunshine. It’s a pretty obvious feint. After all, listen closely to the song playing on the truck’s dashboard speakers. “Hey baby, take a walk on the wild side.” Director Jaume Collet-Serra has no interest in Lou Reed’s actual lyrical connotations, of course; no, his implementation of the classic tune is all surface level. Nancy Adams is about to take a walk on the wild side.
It’s summer, and during summer consumers have the choice of either venturing out to the multiplex for the next Hollywood offering or staying inside to mindlessly watch NBC’s “American Ninja Warrior.” Well, “The Shallows” is the best of both worlds. “American Ninja Warrior” pits competitors against a series of obstacle courses and the shallows where Nancy has come to surf only to be stalked by a shark instead is nothing if not a cinematic obstacle course. After quickly meeting his quota of C.J. Parker-ish shots of Ms. Lively in her yellow bikini, Collet-Serra unambiguously establishes each of the hindrances and advantages that await in the water. There are jagged rocks, stinging jellyfish and a metal buoy. The timing for both high tide and low tide is relayed by a friendly pair of male surfers catching waves, one of whom wears a GoPro Helmet because hey, if someone in a sticky situation needed to video record an S.O.S…….but, spoilers! Why you can practically see a TV exec standing on the beach and ordering “Release the shark.”
Briefly “The Shallows” seems like it might have more on its mind than simply dangling Nancy as shark bait. In a sequence that neatly conveys how modern humans struggle to appreciate panoramas in front of them by placing phone calls on the screen over the ocean, Nancy speaks to her father (Brett Cullen) who laments that his daughter is off in Mexico when, gosh dang it, she should be finishing medical school. This is partly a plot necessity so that she can dress her own inevitable wounds, but it also yearns to amplify the stakes, to transform her coming survival quest into a moment of clarity – after all, who among us hasn’t needed to battle a shark to re-think our attitude toward schooling? This is jettisoned, however, once the great white turns up and the action gets rolling, and which makes the quick happy-ever-after coda so profoundly ugh. It might have been wiser to do away with any conventional story to simply juxtapose the beauty and terror of nature, the blissful blue water and the grey shark, the grace of the human body as it skims through the surf with the quivering, bloodied mess it becomes. Or to turn this more into a celebration of the moment as much as survival, given how Lively so expertly conveys a necessary calm in moments of pronounced fear.
But hey, “The Shallows” primarily seeks to thrill, and so it does with a lickety split story in which the action’s finely tuned ebbs and flows mirror the low tide and the high tide, putting a specific clock on the action, giving Nancy only so much time to navigate the course in order to achieve victory. I will not reveal the outcome. What I will say is that as Nancy is dropped off at the beginning, Carlos asks how she’ll get back. “I’ll just Uber,” she cheekily replies. It’s meant for a laugh but it’s also mean to elucidate how she prefers jumping without knowing whether or not there’s a net. She’ll figure it out, and that’s what she’ll do with the shark too. She doesn’t need a bigger boat; she doesn’t need any boat; she just needs some brawn, some brains and a whole lotta daring. After all, if you’re gonna be the next American Ninja Warrior, you can’t just lie on a rock and hope to get airlifted to safety.