Review: The Shallows 

Cathartic surf becomes nightmare in The Shallows

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The best shark films never lose sight of the drama unfolding on shore. The ferocious fish is just one of many problems that the characters have to conquer; it's a monstrous embodiment of the everyday fears circling around them. In Jaws, the shark mirrors the aggressive island community that preys upon the confidence of Police Chief Brody (Roy Scheider). In Open Water, sharks symbolize the looming death of a couple’s marriage.

The Shallows understands that the most compelling targets of these creatures are people who are already vulnerable — characters facing demons on land that they can't escape at sea.

The film finds medical student Nancy Adams (Blake Lively) retreating to a secluded beach in Mexico after her mother's death. She seeks solace in the surf, hoping to feel her mom's spirit as the waves crash over her.

Nancy's cathartic swim turns into a nightmare when she comes across a whale carcass — and a great white shark feeding on it. The monster pulls her underwater, taking a nasty bite out of her leg. She luckily escapes, taking refuge on a large rock nearby, where she spends the rest of the film trying to figure out how she can flee from the shark's feeding ground. For 87 breathless minutes, the movie holds you firmly in its grip.

Lively anchors the film with her tough yet tender performance, which is easily her best work to date. She makes you feel the weight of Nancy's trauma and the way her mother's death hovers over every vital moment of the harrowing situation. Early in the film, Nancy talks about how her mom "fought too hard" in her battle with cancer. Nancy's medical objectivity gives way to unyielding hope as she grapples with the shark.

Meanwhile, director Jaume Collet-Serra maintains an unsettling atmosphere humming with dread. Fortunately, he knows when to keep the shark out of the frame, taking a cue from the Steven Spielberg school of suspense. And when you do see the shark, it looks absolutely terrifying and all too real. You can practically feel it brushing past your legs.

The Shallows
delivers the goods, making you squirm in your seat and bite your nails in fear. It's definitely a B-movie, but it's an earnest one with a significant amount of emotional heft amid the escapism. Unlike the weekend's other notable release — Independence Day: ResurgenceThe Shallows is a popcorn spectacle with staying power. It will linger in your mind long after you leave the theater. Who says you can't have your popcorn and eat it, too? If you suffered through the monumentally disappointing Independence Day sequel, The Shallows will restore your faith in summer movies.

It might be easy to dismiss this film as forgettable summer schlock with its sun-kissed scenery and scantily clad lead actress. But it's easily one of the best films in theaters right now — an intense, heartfelt survival story. It's no Jaws, but there's definitely magic in this one.

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