Shark vs. surfer sleeper The Shallows dives deep

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Ever since that poor, doomed skinny dipper was eaten alive in the opening scene of the original Jaws, no great (or more appropriately, not so great) killer shark movie has been complete without a bikini-clad woman facing off against a blood-thirsty shark. In fact, the beautiful woman doing battle with a shark has become such a cliché that it was easy to write off the most recent entry in the genre, Non-Stop helmer Jaume Collet-Serra’s insanely suspenseful The Shallows, as just another cheesy “sharksploitation” film based on the poster alone. But, sometimes, looks can be deceiving.

Taut, inventive, and surprisingly deep for a low-budget, shark attack movie, The Shallows is actually more of a cracker jack survival thriller than a straight-up killer shark flick. Anchored by a gritty, no-holds-barred performance from Blake Lively (Gossip Girl, The Age of Adaline) as a young medical student who encounters one very angry shark while on an extended surfing safari in Mexico after the death of her mother, Lively’s performance here is nothing short of spectacular.

And while comparisons to James Franco’s harrowing, Oscar-nominated turn in the true-life survival yarn 127 Hours are totally apt, the film The Shallows most reminded me of was the 1967 Audrey Hepburn chiller Wait Until Dark, where Hepburn’s blind protagonist is terrorized in her NYC apartment by a gang of merciless thugs led by Alan Arkin. They might have wildly different plots and settings, but the artfully-calibrated cat and mouse interplay between Lively’s character, Nancy – who spends most of the movie stranded by her nemesis on a rock in the shallows of an idyllic cove – and the shark is just as riveting as anything Hepburn and Arkin served up in Dark. If anything, Nancy’s plight is all the more agonizing because she is trapped just a few hundred yards from the relative safety of a pristine, white sand beach in the distance.

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And speaking of that gorgeous beach with no name, The Shallows looks amazing. Shot on location on Lord Howe Island in New South Wales, Australia (subbing for Mexico) by Collet-Serra’s frequent collaborator Flavio Martínez Labiano (Unknown, Non-Stop) The Shallows features some of the most stunning underwater cinematography I’ve ever seen. And the shot of the shark moving through the backside of one of the waves Lively is surfing is just too cool to miss. Ingenious!

Equally ingenious is The Shallows’ tight, minimalist script by midnight movie master Anthony Jaswinski (Vanishing on 7th Street, Backwoods) who deftly transforms the stuff of standard-issue B-movie dreck into a twisty little low-budget gem. And though there are a few “movie moments” here and there – for instance, I don’t know what mobile plan Nancy has, but she never loses signal once, even when FaceTiming with her father and sister back home in Texas from a secluded beach in Mexico! – The Shallows is so fresh, fun and edge-of-your-seat exciting that you’ll hardly care.

Now playing on select Virgin Atlantic, Singapore Airlines, American Airlines, JetBlue, and United flights worldwide, The Shallows is also available via streaming at Amazon Video, Google Play and iTunes.

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