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Review: ‘The Shallows': Come on in, the water’s Lively

“The Shallows”
Blake Lively in the movie “The Shallows.”
(Vince Vali / Columbia Pictures)

There’s an excellent movie now in theaters: a deeply moving adventure about a traumatized young female who plunges into unfamiliar waters and experiences terror and salvation by way of some computer-generated marine life. But enough about “Finding Dory.” If you’re looking for a quick and satisfying summer thrill — a reminder that all you really need to make a movie is a girl and a flare gun — then the aptly titled Blake Lively-vs.-shark thriller “The Shallows” should serve you nicely.

It serves Lively best of all. If Hollywood has seemed slow to appreciate this talented actress (the popularity of the CW’s now-defunct “Gossip Girl” notwithstanding), the tide would appear to be turning on the evidence of this efficiently pared-down B-movie showcase, whose taut suspense and fat-free narrative seem to have been conceived along the same lines as its star’s enviable musculature. You will see Lively do richer, subtler acting in the future (as early as next month, when Woody Allen’s “Café Society” arrives in theaters). But she meets all the requirements of this high-concept one-woman show and then some: intense physical stamina, some stunt-double-abetted surfing, and the ability to look good in a bikini from every possible angle. 

Better still, she effortlessly holds her own opposite a computer-generated chomper that the director Jaume Collet-Serra is smart enough to keep mostly hidden until the noisy, fiery, hilariously over-the-top (and under-the-bottom) finale. Faux-shark technology may have advanced by leaps and bounds since “Jaws,” but even in the era of Shark Week, “Sharknado” and Trolli sour-watermelon shark candies, “The Shallows” suggests that the lessons of Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster hold as true as they did in 1975.

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It’s a gorgeous afternoon when Nancy (Lively), a Texas-tanned surfer, arrives at a secluded beach somewhere on the Mexican coast. The sun is shining, the water an inviting shade of blue, the use of slo-mo exquisite. In the course of a few text messages and video chats, Anthony Jaswinski’s mechanical screenplay lays out Nancy’s situation with amusing briskness: an isolated location, a no-show best friend, a worried dad, a beloved mother whose recent death from cancer is causing her to second-guess her dreams of becoming a doctor.

Naturally, that medical training will come in handy when Nancy, after doing some fancy dancy-prancy on her surfboard, is suddenly bitten by a great white and forced to take refuge on a large rock that becomes a tiny outcropping at high tide. She’s bleeding heavily from a leg wound, the suturing of which is shown in all its gory glory, but at least she’s alive, unlike some of the other surfers and onlookers unfortunate enough to enter this deadly cove. Trapped just a few hundred yards from a shore that has never looked more tantalizing, Nancy must fend off not only her predator but also the ravages of hunger, thirst and exhaustion, with only a friendly downed seagull for company. (The seagull even has a name, but I’m trying to avoid spoilers.)

High-concept survivalist dramas have become an unusually rich and varied Hollywood subgenre in recent years, with a dramatic bandwidth elastic enough to accommodate the hopped-up intensity of “127 Hours,” the sublime minimalism of “All Is Lost” and the astronomical razzle-dazzle of “Gravity.” That’s partly a testament to the remarkable range of digital technologies at play here, but it’s also an instructive testament to the importance of star power. Lively’s vehicle doesn’t aspire to those films’ prestige depths, and it doesn’t need to; her fierce commitment to the role is all the profundity it needs. (The actress has said that she was inspired by “Buried,” in which Ryan Reynolds, now her husband, played a man trapped in a coffin.)

And on its own unpretentious, unapologetically pleasure-seeking terms, “The Shallows” has enough to recommend it — not least the fact that you could watch it twice in roughly the same amount of time it would take to watch “The Revenant,” and with little appreciable loss in adrenaline or poetry. Collet-Serra is a genre-savvy action director with two notorious shockers (“House of Wax,” “Orphan”) and three Liam Neeson smash-’em-ups (“Unknown,” “Non-Stop,” “Run All Night”) under his belt, and for all that studio-manufactured sound and fury, he seems to have intuitively grasped the more scaled-down needs of this assignment.

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Working expertly in tandem with the cinematographer Flavio Labiano and the editor Joel Negron, Collet-Serra keeps the movie bobbing nicely alongside his star, delivering a new frisson of unease every time the camera plunges beneath the ever-rising and falling surface. He has fun teasing us with process and minutiae: the precise mechanical operation of a buoy, the defensive properties of a school of jellyfish, the number of seconds it takes the shark to swim a lap around its feeding zone. Speaking of time: With its thoroughly unnecessary closing scene, this blissfully short 86-minute movie would play even better at 85, but let’s just shut up and enjoy the air conditioning.

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‘The Shallows’

MPAA rating: PG-13 for bloody images, intense sequences of peril and brief strong language

Running time: 1 hour, 26 minutes

Playing: In wide release


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