Synopsis of The Shallows: After her mother dies of cancer, Nancy Adams (Blake Lively) drops out of med school and heads to a secret beach in Mexico, one her mother used to visit. Surfing alone, she is attacked by a large shark and stranded on a small rock about 200 yards from shore.
One of the handful of big theatrical horror releases of the summer of 2016 (produced by Columbia Pictures), The Shallows is expertly directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, who is no stranger to horror. Collet-Serra has helmed House of Wax (2005) and Orphan (2009), as well as directing the first two episodes of ABC’s interesting but finally foundering supernatural found-footage horror series, The River (2012).
The Shallows has inevitably been compared to Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975), which both is and is not an accurate comparison. On the one hand nothing like Jaws, The Shallows does, toward the end in particular, make numerous covert references to it—offering an explicit and interesting re-writing.
But for most of the film, The Shallows is like Jaws only in that it features a large great white shark. (And, as with Jaws, the shark is similarly unreal, created largely through CGI.) Jaws created a complex narrative involving a rich cast of characters (notably, Brody, Hooper, and Quint) and came with a host of meanings about class relations, economics, masculinity, sexuality, and nature. The Shallows focuses almost claustrophobically on Nancy alone, leaving aside any complexity of character and narrative.
The unrelenting focus on Nancy is, though, what’s interesting about The Shallows. At first, the constant recurrent close-ups of her body are conventionally sexual as she takes off her clothes, zips up (mostly) her wetsuit (top only), and runs (in brief slow-motion) to the water’s edge. But she soon throws off the sexually voyeuristic gaze, spending the rest of the film in action, her body treated little differently than a man’s. Nancy surfs (which Lively did not do herself) and then she battles for survival—taking on the shark, toward the end, single-handedly. (Lively did do her own stunts, up until the final two weeks.)
Once in the water, Nancy’s body—still the obsessive focus of attention—becomes a human body, exerting all its strength to survive and yet also remaining vulnerable. The Shallows is definitely “body horror,” and the damage the shark and the ocean inflict is often very painful to watch, creating an extremely tense viewing experience. But I thought it was interesting to see how Nancy became human flesh—not sexual flesh.
As a film, The Shallows is mostly . . .well, shallow—which isn’t a bad thing necessarily. The cinematography is beautiful—shot in Australia with plenty of extreme long shots to intensify the isolation of Nancy on her rock. There’s virtually no character development, as Nancy is little more than her departure from med school and her grief over her mother. And there’s nothing to the narrative except the brutal struggle between Nancy and the shark (and the elements). There are a few other characters, but they are little more than props props and the by-now famous injured seagull is developed more than the other humans in the film.
The only depth, if you can call it that, to The Shallows is the way it references and rewrites Jaws. Near the end of the film, Nancy makes it to a buoy floating by her rock, and she salvages a flare gun. As the buoy lists to one side, Nancy lies along it and aims her gun at the shark, yelling “F—k you” in defiance. This moment reprises Brody’s last stand against his shark as the boat was sinking and he lay along its mast to take aim at the shark (he does something similar in Jaws 2, only with a power line). This echo of the earlier film makes it clear how revolutionary it is that, forty-one years later, a woman has taken Brody’s place (indeed she’s taken the place of all three men in Jaws), rewriting the gender dynamic of a film that was, in its second half, an entirely male narrative. The Shallows is a woman’s film.
The Shallows does have one more thing in common with Jaws and that’s its demonization of the shark. The film offers only the most fleeting of reasons for the way the shark completely uncharacteristically begins attacking humans: Nancy ends up near a dead whale on which the shark has been feeding—and she sees a hook in its mouth and makes a comment about how someone “got you, didn’t they?” She also mentions, on a video she makes, that she wandered into the shark’s feeding territory. This makes the film about food and territory and about hunting and being hunted—although in actuality the shark is clearly doing much more than seeking food, appearing to have some kind of animus against Nancy. Lively has gone on record in a couple of interviews talking about the film’s message about global warming, which is driving sharks closer to the shore for food, and thus closer to humans.[i] If that deeper message was supposed to be conveyed by the film itself, however, it was so subtle as to be pretty much indiscernible to this viewer at least.
What we’re left with, I guess, is this generation’s Jaws. It’s a beautiful, horrifying, skin-deep rendition of Jaws, missing any character development or narrative depth. Its representation of gender is, though, quite stunning, with Nancy standing in for the range of male characters in Jaws. And she doesn’t even need a boat, let alone a bigger one.
2016 | Jaume Collet-Serra | 86 minutes | USA
[i] Here’s Blake Lively in one interview: “Because of global warming, great whites that were in deeper water are now in much more shallow water. It’s a very real very present thing. It’s something you don’t hear as much. It’s very easy to villainize a shark like, “These monsters! We have to get rid of them.” But it’s also incredibly ignorant and irresponsible to think that way. We’re in their land. It’s just about being respectful and being educated.” Tim Stack, “Blake Lively Talks The Shallows, Bikinis, and Why She Never Saw Jaws,” Entertainment Weekly, June 24, 2016.
And in a Cannes Film Festival interview, Lively praised The Shallows for putting a very real environmental issue about shark habitats in the forefront: “Because of global warming, sharks are pushed closer and closer to the shallow waters,” the actor said. “We always depict sharks as these villains, but we kill more sharks than sharks ever kill humans.” Sage Young, “The Shallows’ Shark Isn’t Real but Blake Lively’s Stunt Work Is,” June 20, 2016, Bustle.