Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water … another shark movie swims into view. This one is called “The Shallows” and I borrow from another movie’s tag line (“Jaws II” for those too young to know) because Sony’s art work and posters for the movie encourage you to think “Jaws.”
You may think “Jaws” all you like but “The Shallows” deviates substantially from the most famous shark movie of all time. Nor does it have a brilliant director in young Steven Spielberg, John Williams’ immortal score, Carl Gottlieb and Peter Benchley’s complex and amusing screenplay or a trio of superb actors.
What it does have is the attractive and game Blake Lively, who must carry the entire movie by herself, and director Jaume Collet-Serra, who has shown in previous thrillers, especially those with Liam Neeson (“Non-Stop,” “Unknown”), an ability to turn the screws until the emotional fabric is completely taut.
So “The Shallows” emerges as a decently engineered summer-time diversion that probably could’ve been better but most certainly a lot worse. It’s man (okay, woman) fighting nature for survival once again but don’t expect any “The Revenant.” Where that one is memorable, this one is imminently forgettable.
The logic gaps aren’t nearly as great as those in “Non-Stop” but they do dog the story almost from the get-go. You must imagine a surfer girl who ignores the No. 1 rule of her sport — never surf alone — to travel for miles to a “secret beach” on the coast of Mexico where she finds herself stranded on a rock at low tide inside the feeding ground of a great white shark.
You might notice she also ignores another rule for a young woman traveling alone — to be wary about potential male predators. She bums a ride out to the beach from a guy she just met and encounters other males surfing in the waters without considering the consequences.
This isn’t what the suspense movie is about, however, but it does set her up as a woman who takes risks most others would consider unacceptable.
One reason for her heedlessness, no doubt, is the recent death of her mother after a long struggle with cancer. This has caused her to suspend her medical studies and sink into a muddle of discouragement.
“She fought too hard,” she says of her mother when she calls home to her sister and dad on FaceTime. This, of course, tips you off that Lively’s Nancy Adams will will be forced to fight for her own life just as hard over the next 80 minutes.
The movie’s great white is a strange predator. She has the carcass of a humpback whale in the bay, presumably what lured her into such shallow waters, yet she continues to attack and devour everything in the water including humans for the sheer sport of killing.
I’m no marine biologist so I can’t say for sure if this is even plausible behavior. But as a lifelong filmgoer, I do know a movie monster when I see one. Apparently a cousin to Bruce the shark in “Jaws,” this unnamed great white is there strictly to maim, stalk, taunt and terrorize the heroine.
It follows the rules not of the sea but of screenwriting classes — the NYU Dramatic Writing Program grad here is Anthony Jaswinski —that can teach rules and formulas but not how to inject humanity into a story.
For the key missing ingredient in “The Shallows” is any motivation to make this movie other than the job of tooling a summer-time diversion. When you think of the great suspense moviemakers such as Alfred Hitchcock or Brian De Palma, they were interested in thrills, yes, but also the human heart, how people react under stress and what that says about them.
Here Collet-Serra and Jaswinski make a weak stab at this with the mother’s death providing an interior motivation and with this med student and surfer using her medical knowledge, ocean experience, wardrobe, observations and whatever she can lay her hands on in a struggle to survive this circling predator.
But there isn’t nearly enough of this human ingenuity and survival instinct because, in the end, luck — i.e., those screenwriting tricks — serves Nancy better than her resourcefulness.
There are even head-scratchers such as her speaking decent enough Spanish earlier in the movie but unable to shout anything in Spanish to possible rescuers later. (Why even bother giving her a limited knowledge of Spanish?)
Lively lives up to her name as she injects much physical and emotional energy into a movie in which she is in nearly every shot. She even makes work the corny conceit of the woman’s companion, an injured seagull that has taken refuge on the rock as well. For you can see her finding solace and strength in this strange companion.
(Unlike the CG shark, this seagull gets played by real seagulls exceptionally well trained by Katie Brock-Medland.)
No music score in a thrill/horror film should be compared to Williams’s great “Jaws” score, but the reliable and competent film composer Marco Beltrami settles all too easily for sudden dramatic notes and hammered cords that mingle with watery rumbles and burbles on the soundtrack. These are more risible than was no doubt intended.
Opens: June 24, 2016 (Columbia Pictures)
Production companies: Weimaraner Republic Pictures, Ombra Films
Cast: Blake Lively, Oscar Jaenada, Angelo Josue, Lozano Corzo, Jose Manuel, Trujillo Salas, Brett Cullen, Sedona Legge, Pablo Calva, Diego Espejel
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Screenwriter: Anthony Jaswinski
Producers: Lynn Harris, Matti Leshem
Executive producers: Doug Merrifield, Jaume Collet-Serra
Director of photography: Flavio Labiano
Production designer: Hugh Bateup
Music: Marco Beltrami
Visual effects supervisor: Scott E. Anderson
Editor: Joel Negron
PG-13 rating, 86 minutes