There's no danger of Blake Lively getting an Academy Award for The Shallows, a fantastically flighty movie in which her character spends most of the time trapped on a rock in the ocean a few hundred yards from a remote beach in Mexico. But — with all seriousness — Lively struggles through the same type of grueling survival tale as Leonardo DiCaprio does in The Revenant: Instead of a grizzly bear, her face-off is with a great white shark, and she does it in a bikini (backwards in high heels, etc.). She screams, she endures a gruesome mauling, and she sews a gash in her thigh together using her own jewelry — take that, gunpowder-to-neck-wound cauterization.
It also only takes Lively's surfer character Nancy a fleet 87 minutes to accomplish what took Leo's character a ponderous, self-important 156 — to emerge improbably alive from a (wo)man-versus-nature conflict having learned some fuzzy lesson about grieving or the human spirit or something. DiCaprio crawled through snow, rode a horse off a cliff, and committed to a performance that was at least 50% pained groans in order to win his long-sought Academy Award. Lively talks to herself about the status of her wounded, failing body and games out a strategy that at one point involves somehow setting the ocean on fire. What else could you ask for in a sharkbit heroine?
Branding is everything. And while Oscars are nice, in a summer that's been rough inside and outside of theaters, the difficulty of making something as effortlessly enjoyable as The Shallows shouldn't go underappreciated. It's a credit to Jaume Collet-Serra — who also directed Liam Neeson-is-an-alcoholic-mobster thriller Run All Night and Liam Neeson-is-an-alcoholic-air-marshal thriller Non-Stop — that The Shallows works, because it's an uncommonly well-made movie about such an unabashedly high-concept, low-commitment premise.
Not that the movie's overly airheaded. Starting with the intro, during which Nancy explains to a local why she's going solo, the film does its best to strand her in rocky isolation without making her look like a totally disposable dumb-dumb. Her FaceTime conversations, GoPro footage, and text messages are splashed onscreen to make what's largely a Lively solo show (with assists from the shark and a particularly charismatic seagull) feel more populated, along with helping to sketch in character details about Nancy's convenient medical background and dead parent angst.
Collet-Serra's also good at introducing horror to the film's secluded paradise by first highlighting its spectacular beauty, the camera wheeling easily above and dipping below the clear water as it follows Nancy catching a wave. The Shallows is an idyll gone dark, but it appreciates that a stunning location doesn't get less stunning just because there's something monstrous and man-eating in the water. One of the movie's visual ironies is that it remains vacation-commercial lovely even while Nancy bleeds out from a bite, the rising tide slowly taking away her perch.
If anything, The Shallows plays its shark attack scenario a little too straight. It reaches for camp during its big finish, only after it's exhausted its narrow focus and Nancy's limbs start looking a little gangrenous. By then, some silliness is required, as the shark's managed to munch on multiple people but still, irrationally, stays put instead of swimming along. Maybe he was angling for the type of screen time The Revenant's grizzly got, though he should be happy with this end product. The Shallows aims only to entertain, and it's a better movie for it.