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Poor ending kills otherwise decent shark thriller 'The Shallows'

Posted June 27

“THE SHALLOWS” — 2 stars — Blake Lively, Oscar Jaenada, Brett Cullen, Sedona Legge; PG-13 (bloody images, intense sequences of peril, and brief strong language); in general release

It’s a lot easier to create a problem than to solve one. That’s the fatal flaw of “The Shallows,” a well-intended thriller that stumbles across the finish line.

“The Shallows” is the latest in a long tradition of lone-survivor-in-distress films, such as “Castaway,” “Gravity” and last year’s “The Martian.” Comparisons to “Jaws” will be inevitable, as “The Shallows” essentially posits what might have happened if that poor girl in the opening reel would have survived the shark attack and climbed onto the buoy.

But closest cousin of “The Shallows” may be 2013’s “All is Lost,” a film that stranded Robert Redford all by himself in the middle of the ocean on a sinking boat. “The Shallows” features sharper teeth and a similar problem-solving plot, but “All is Lost” told a better story.

Then again, many audiences will prefer to watch actress Blake Lively on the big screen for an hour and a half. Lively plays Nancy, a med student who has chosen to spend her quarter-life crisis on a mysterious beach in Mexico. The beach — which the locals refuse to name — was a favorite location of Nancy’s mother back before she died of cancer, making her surfing trip a bit of a pilgrimage.

Things start off innocently enough as Nancy catches waves with a couple of local surfing enthusiasts. But when she investigates a dead whale floating several hundred yards out, Nancy is attacked by a shark. Somehow she is able to get to a group of nearby rocks, and “The Shallows” becomes a cat and mouse game between Nancy and the shark.

There are other issues. For one, she has a nasty bite on her thigh. Her medical training will come in handy here. But she’s still bleeding into the water, which further complicates things, and even when she spots other people on the shore — such as a passed-out drunk with questionable ethics — every glimmer of hope seems to get snuffed out in a wash of sharp teeth and gushing blood. Tack on a rising tide that will turn her makeshift island into a serving tray, and the shark seems to be operating at an unfair advantage.

For a shark-based horror movie, “The Shallows” provides a few jumps, but nothing approaching its superior predecessors. It’s beautifully shot, and the early surfing sequences feel like an extreme sports highlight reel. And for a movie about a stranded attractive woman in a bikini, it’s pretty restrained in the objectification department.

Speaking of restrained, “The Shallows” comes in with a PG-13 rating, and clearly could have been a lot more graphic in its content. But it’s still not a film for the squeamish, mostly thanks to Nancy’s primitive first aid efforts.

“The Shallows” will also feel quite dated in a few years, thanks to a heavy reliance on smartphones and texting to establish some communication with Nancy and her family back home. The multi-shot technique employed by director Jaume Collet-Serra gets the job done, but often feels a bit too gimmicky.

But if all you are looking for is a simple thriller carried by a quality actress, “The Shallows” features just enough depth to keep you interested, even if its ending will leave the audience's eyes rolling right out the theater doors. There are much worse horror movies out there, but as anyone who has seen a shark movie since 1975 can tell you, there are a whole lot better too.

“The Shallows” is rated PG-13 for bloody images, intense sequences of peril and brief strong language; running time: 87 minutes.

Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. Find him online at facebook.com/joshterryreviews.

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