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Review: “The Shallows” (PG-13)

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Blake Lively in “The Shallows”; Vince Valitutti/Sony Pictures Entertainment(NEW YORK) — Forty-one years ago, Steven Spielberg scared an entire planet with Jaws. It’s a great movie that, to this day, has me leery of swimming in the ocean.  But enough about my personal phobias.

I consider every single movie about sharks, piranhas, gators or anything else that can attack you while enjoying a glorious day at a beach or resort to be a rip-off of Jaws. So when director Jaume Collet-Serra’s The Shallows begins with Blake Lively’s Nancy hitching a ride to a “secret beach,” in memory of her late mother, I admit I rolled my eyes a bit, because I knew what was coming.  Or at least, I thought I did.

Furthermore, when Nancy engages with two other surfers I knew would likely meet their end in the jaws of a great white, I was left thinking, “This is going to be predictable and full of gratuitous violence.”  But Collet-Serra has proven in the past that he can make predictable interesting, so maybe he’ll surprise me.  And he did.

Nancy encounters the great white fairly early in the film. She survives the attack, and as a medical student, she’s able to, painfully, sew her gaping leg wound closed with a necklace.  And again, I was left thinking Collet-Serra really painted himself into a corner, because watching Lively try to fend off this shark for the next hour will continue to be predictable, so he might as well just cut to the climax. I’m glad he didn’t.

Lively has shown flashes of being a world-class actress in previous films, but I would say she’s now arrived. She has to carry this film — her only scene partner, for the most part, is Collet-Serra behind the camera, and a seagull (the seagull is quite funny).  It’s a physically demanding role that required Lively to conjure up a lot of emotion and more heart than most actors display throughout an entire career.

The Shallows isn’t complicated or complex.  It’s good old-fashioned suspense featuring a career-defining performance, terrific cinematography, and excellent sound and color.   At 87 minutes, it almost feels too short but it is, more or less, perfect.

Four out of five stars.

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