The Shallows review

Sharks. Everybody loves a shark – either on the dinner plate (yes, they're good eating, because they have cartilage instead of bones so there's nothing to get stuck in the throat) or as an easy go-to movie villain. Ever since Jaws made people afraid to go back in the water in 1975, we've been inundated with killer-shark movies – most of them pretty awful (yes, Sharknados, I'm looking at you). Besides Jaws, can count the number of good killer-shark movies on one hand – and that small, select group now includes The Shallows.

Blake Lively plays Nancy, a young woman taking a break from medical school, after the death of her mother, to go surfing in Tijuana. She's dropped at a secret, remote beach that has just two other surfers riding the waves when she  paddles out. They banter a little and flirt a bit (Nancy is anything but ugly) before the guys take a final ride and leave Nancy all alone a couple of hundred metres from shore. But she's not alone for long. There's a whale carcass near the mouth of the cove, and it seems a great white shark has been snacking on it – and is not happy that Nancy has strayed into its feeding ground. Thus begins a battle of wits between a woman and a force of nature.

It's a simple setup, but The Shallows is almost perfect in its execution. Unlike so many shark films, there's a real logic at its core. It's well known that sharks don't actually enjoy eating people (they don't like the taste, apparently) but a shark defending its turf makes sense. And being a med student, Nancy fixing herself up after she's hurt also makes sense. She spends a good deal of the film trapped on a rock just 200m from shore, trying to how to get to safety without being chomped, with just an injured seagull she names Steven for company. It's a gutsy and powerful performance from Lively – for most of the running time she is the only person on screen, so she has her work cut out for her in keeping our attention. She's aided by Anthony Jaswinski's impressive script and stellar direction from Jaume Collet-Serra, who's best know, until now, for his action work with Liam Neeson (Unknown, Non-Stop and Run All Night). It's beautifully shot, too, with stunning underwater photography, sensational surfing scenes and minimal use of CGI. And at a taut 87 minutes, the film is as free of flab as Lively herself.

Lean, mean and terrific fun, The Shallows may not make you afraid to go back into the water, but it will make you very wary of dead whales.

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Stuart O'Connor is the Managing Editor of Screenjabber, the movie review website he co-founded with Neil Davey far too many years ago. He likes all genres, as long as the film is good (although he does enjoy the occasional bad "guilty pleasure"), and drinks way too much coffee.

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