‘The Shallows’
Director:
Jaume Collet-Serra
Stars: Blake Lively, a shark
Rating: PG-13
4 (out of 5) Globes

Jean-Luc Godard said all a movie needed was a girl and a gun. “The Shallows” goes with a girl and a shark. In fact, that’s all it has. It needs nothing else. A tiny, lean, stripped-down tale of survival unleashed into a wasteland overrun with blockbuster giants, it plays David to the many Goliaths, offering a reminder that less is more in an age when more is always mistaken for more. All it does is pit Blake Lively, as a surfer in a beauteous and remote Mexican alcove, against a great white that doesn’t want her to reach shore. Sometimes it’s that simple.

And it’s the definition of simple. Once Lively’s Nancy has swam out far enough to become potential fish food, she has next to nothing to help her — just a buoy, a set of rocks peeking out above the surf and, as a good sick joke, a chomped-up whale carcass, upon which our bikini-d cover girl has to climb for safety. There’s another fine gross-out gag, involving an inventive use of the jewelry she wears even while catching waves. Like its hero, the move is resourceful. Every time the script seems to have written itself into a wall, it finds another out, making lots out of nothing at all.

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It’s easy to overrate this kind of bag, given how rarely modest, unpretentious ditties invade multiplexes in our brave new world. Just as Paul Feig (“Bridesmaids,” “Ghostbusters”) is the only one making comedies starring women, Jaume Collet-Serra is Hollywood’s last trashy genre filmmaker standing. In the likes of “Non-Stop” and “Run All Night” – both of which paired him with Liam Neeson, Hollywood’s unlikely new Charles Bronson — the Catalonian director delivered the kind of whip-smart time-killer studios used to churn out at a steady clip. His movies plow through plot holes and superfluous stock character backstory with brute efficiency. (Here, Nancy is mourning a dead mom. Luckily the movie keeps forgetting about it.) Instead they’re able to distract us with action we can follow, bare bones stories that keep moving and actors who are overqualified but never above the material.

Aside from a few expendable side characters, Lively is the whole (human) show. (Her only companion is a movie-stealing seagull, nicknamed “Steven Seagull.” We can debate if he’s even cuter the baby Ellen DeGeneres in “Finding Dory.”) Her Nancy is no superhero, but she is quick-thinking, believably rattled, believably strong-willed and blessed with a casual sense of humor. She doesn’t need a tragic history; she’s interesting and arresting enough living in the present.

Collet-Serra rewards his star’s hard work by having his camera only ogle her minimally. Instead it’s busy finding ways to shoot in a small setting that offers a diversity of images, rarely repeating. This isn’t 1975, so Collet-Serra doesn’t have to deal, as Steven Spielberg did on “Jaws,” with a mechanical shark that doesn’t want to work. But he knows to steal from Spielberg anyway, teasing his scary monster rather than showing him off. Usually he’s no more than a lurking shadow, a glimpse through a cresting wave or a sudden close-up of gnarly teeth, and, yes, a fin sailing steadfastly through the waters. Collet-Serra knows revealing his entire, immense body will be even more shocking if we only see it once. This isn’t always a smart movie, but it’s smart moviemaking, knowing its limitations as well as its increasingly rarified strengths.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge