Movie Review: The Shallows
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Writer: Anthony Jaswinski
Stars: Blake Lively, Óscar Jaenada, Brett Cullen
Summer needs a good B-movie. Especially one of those implausible genre movies that involves Blake Lively - whose body is unabashedly exploited by the (apparent) male gaze of the camera - as she quite literally surfs into the thrashes of a Great White more hungry and pissed off than the mechanical, non-CGI shark of Spielberg’s Jaws. There is, of course, a larger conceit that involves character development and a setup for how Ms. Lively ends up in the throes of a shark, a clear metaphor for an existential crisis that most people of privilege face when young: What is my purpose in life in the face of so much adversity? Well, take care of the shark first and the answers come right in.
Beyond the implausibility, Lively’s character Nancy, a spritely Galveston, Texas native and surfer, is a relatable, cunning character. Nancy’s first connection to the audience is universal: She is clearly in pain and on holiday to find where her now deceased mother once vacationed while pregnant with our protagonist. Nancy hopes to relive the joy her mother felt on a serene beach somewhere in Mexico.
She of course finds her beach with the help of a local named Carlos. Sure, he finds the beach stunning, but the connotations are not there for him. But for some reason, he refuses to tell Nancy the name of this mysterious paradise. Once dropped off, Nancy immediately waxes her surfboard and absconds from the horrible pits of the real world and rides the waves with her mother in mind. Yes, she meets two local men riding alongside her, but they are harmless observers enjoying the site of Nancy moving seamlessly and as gracefully as any creature residing in the ocean. Oh, and these two also refuse to tell her the name of the beach.
There are other plot points meant to reinforce Nancy’s plight. Besides her mother’s death, a video call from her sister and father exemplifies how detached she is from her immediate family. Her father, in not so walking-on-egg-shell fashion, scolds Nancy for “taking a break” from medical school despite being close to graduation. These tropes, clichés, however you characterize them, are obvious, but they work because they are universal.
Beyond implausibility and universality, director Jaume Collet-Serra, who horror fans will remember for directing the wonderfully entertaining Orphan, has managed to direct a film that is part Jaws, part GoPro, and all suspenseful eye candy. The inevitable drama ensues when Nancy swims across the carcass of a gray whale which attracts the ravenous Great White, who attacks and injures our vulnerable Nancy. Her two locals are nowhere to be found. Her cellphone, which she listlessly discards on the beach after her futile conversation with her father, is 200 yards away. Her leg gushes with blood from the bite. It is dire, to say the least, and Collet-Serra manages to take what seems to be an impossible scenario and stretches the drama over the next hour, unfortunately at the expense of Nancy’s pain. And a lot more Great White close encounters.
Even though tracking Nancy’s survival is quite entertaining, some will find the motivations of the shark, if one could even call it as such without sounding completely absurd, silly and reinforcing the notion that sharks are dangerous predators and we are their prey. Of course with the television cable staple of Discovery’s misguided Shark Week which airs every summer, and the myth of the predator shark spawned by the aforementioned Jaws, it is no wonder that a movie like this will work for 21st Century audiences. (Ironically, the late author of Jaws, Peter Benchley, was horrified by the monster he created as he saw a strange correlation of fearing sharks with the mass fishing and killing of the species. Conservative estimates put shark deaths, that is, the death of sharks and not shark attacks on humans, at 100 million per year; perhaps as high as 273 million. Benchley was a renowned shark conservationist until his death in 2006).
But one has to remember that the shark serves as a metaphor for the monster eating Nancy. The beach, and the shallow bay that covers its shores, is deeper than its waters. It is B-movie making at its finest. And once you accept this premise, it is easy to enjoy the spectacle.