Young American woman makes a pilgrimage (for reasons a bit melodramatic and almost entirely superfluous, but never mind) to a beach in Mexico that is pristine, secret, and deserted. Or nearly so. Nancy (Blake Lively: The Age of Adaline, Green Lantern) is a bit wary of the couple of guys (Jose Trujillo Salas and Angelo Lozano Corzo) sitting on their surfboards offshore, waiting for the next wave to ride in; she keeps her distance even after they invite her to join them, because all women know to be vigilant around male strangers. Later, as the men prepare to head back to civilization, she nervously watches them on the beach as she sits on her board way out in the water, wondering if they’re going to steal the backpack full of stuff she left on the sand. The guys, of course, are completely harmless, and are gone without ever having done or said anything less than cheerful and friendly to her. But these are the things that women worry about.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Putting a woman at the center of a story instead of the default man automatically brings freshness to a flick, because female protagonists and their perspectives are still such novelties. In The Shallows, written by Anthony Jaswinski (Vanishing on 7th Street), it’s just as Nancy finally truly relaxes and lets her guard down to enjoy this glorious bit of nature that the bad thing she was not anticipating happens: a shark attacks. And it’s a big, mean one. Now she’s stranded on a rock that the retreating tide has revealed, with a nasty deep gash on her leg — it’s not clear whether this was caused by the shark nibbling at her or by a collision with the razor sharp rock, but it doesn’t matter — and the ticking countdown of the eventual high tide that will force her back into the water.
So hooray: after so many years of men duking it out against mountains and storms and wild beasts, The Shallows cements the arrival of “woman versus nature” as a subgenre (after Wild, the only other major film I can think of in which a woman on her own goes up against the big bad natural world). Director Jaume Collet-Serra (Run All Night, Non-Stop) cannot seem to totally refrain from getting all male-gazey — we really do not need multiple lingering shots up Nancy’s ass as she is paddling out on her board — but mostly he lets her be herself, not eye candy for us, as she desperately navigates her precarious situation. A medical student, she is able to MacGyver a temporary fix for that gash on her leg using items that a dude most likely wouldn’t have had available to him. But she is still stranded, with the beach so tantalizingly in sight and yet not another human being around, and with any thought she might have had of taking a chance swimming to shore quickly put to rest. This is one brutal and determined shark that has it in for her, and it is not going to let her go.
Now, I’m not entirely convinced that either of the two reasons the movie offers for why the shark would target and stalk Nancy are even halfway plausible, but it’s easy to forget that as a problem amidst all the delicious tension. The Shallows is one of those rare movies that manages to whip up pure visceral suspense and maintain it till you’re breathless. Lively is so thoroughly engaging and Collet-Serra so masterful at making us feel everything she is feeling that the result is pure, simple popcorn thrills of the kind that have been all too rare this summer. Jaws invented the summer movie 40 years ago, and it takes another shark to remind us of the electric rush that summer movies are meant to bring.