"It all ends the same."
That’s the worldview of Blake Lively’s character Nancy in The Shallows, this summer’s woman-versus-shark epic. Like a lot of Lively’s lines, she mumbles it — like she’s talking with a mouth full of ice cubes — robbing the words of their importance. But despite Lively’s delivery, that’s how Nancy, a disillusioned American med student who’s on a surfing sabbatical in Mexico, suddenly sees the world: Nothing in life matters because we know what the outcome will be. And that sentiment provides all the foundation The Shallows — or any other shark movie — could ever need.
Shark movies are not complicated. We’re here to see sharks eat people — men, women, children, one person in particular. The Shallows understands this desire and never strays too far from trying to fulfill it.
The film is about a very attractive woman and a great white shark that would like to make a meal out of her. There’s no musing on humanity or ethereal symbolism, like there was in Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. There’s no primal terror, like there was in the oft-overlooked Open Water. There’s no finesse, no subtlety — in either the film’s bones or in Lively’s performance. The Shallows is just blue water and (great) white death.
And yet, in its own simple, battering way, the movie manages to find its fun.
Everything about the The Shallows is pretty surface-level
After seeing the trailer and marketing for The Shallows, I was convinced the movie would turn out to be a bait-and-switch travel-horror flick in the same vein as The Ruins, Turistas, and even Hostel. Those movies are fascinating in the way they portray Americans, so privileged and blithely unaware of the grimness that surrounds them, coupled with a warped view of the countries they visit — as untrustworthy, inhumane, chaotic, primal.
While Lively’s Nancy is a self-described gringa in every clueless sense of the word, this movie never crosses into travel-horror territory. It occasionally fuels an anticipation for human meanness, but that meanness never materializes; there is no plot about locals feeding white girls to sharks.The Shallows is not that complicated. Its only danger is in the deep.
In The Shallows, what you see is what you get. And what we see and get is Nancy’s worst vacation ever.
Nancy is taking some time away from med school to recalibrate after losing her mother to cancer. Once upon a time, before cancer ravaged her body, Nancy’s mom surfed at this same magical, secret Mexican beach. And in an effort to find herself, Nancy traces her mother’s footsteps by enjoying the same sand and the same blue water her mother once did. The only difference between the two women’s experiences is a dead-ish whale.
The whale is missing chunks of its skin. It’s floating just beyond where the surf breaks. And it has attracted the attention of a great white shark that thinks the whale looks tasty but Nancy looks more appetizing.
The movie’s true value is in its look and feel; its story pays the price
The whale and the shark are two of Lively’s three main co-stars in The Shallows. The third is a seabird, and she has remarkable chemistry with all three. At one point she asks the whale (and the shark that’s dragging it through the water as she clings to its back), "Where are you taking me?"
And because the whale is but a whale and The Shallows is not Finding Dory, that question — like so many others in the movie — goes unanswered. Why does the shark want to eat Nancy so badly when there’s a dying whale floating just around the bend? How did Nancy not see this giant decomposing whale until the shark arrived on the scene? Why does Nancy talk to animals? Does Nancy like the movie Diner?
The Shallows is unconcerned with those pivotal questions.
Instead, director Jaume Collet-Serra chooses to focus on the film’s aesthetics — how everything looks and sounds. The way the sun catches Nancy’s (but really, Blake Lively’s) blonde hair. The crunch of the waves hitting rock. The gravelly acoustics of bare feet grinding through sand. The way Nancy’s dark blood breaches the clear water. The dripping, oily slosh of torn, shark-bitten skin falling off muscle.
Collet-Serra has created a movie that excels on a sensory level. It’s quite beautiful to look at, and filled with visceral moments that evoke the feeling of being crushed by a wave or having saltwater seep into a gaping purple wound. The only problem is that The Shallows’ acute focus on these other elements makes Nancy seem inconsequential. She seems more like a surfer in a music video than someone we should care about.
The Shallows flirts with a more serious message but is ultimately a cut-and-dried survival movie
The meat of The Shallows is devoted to Nancy’s survival strategy. The shark clearly isn’t going anywhere, leaving us with more than an hour’s worth of Nancy playing tag with the monster, with two "safe" zones. (Even though the shark can seemingly leap out of the water, it can’t clear the 2-foot-tall rock Nancy is perched on.)
Nature’s elements start to weaken Nancy — she’s cold at night, she gets a nasty sunburn, she’s growing more dehydrated by the minute (hair is still on time, though). But because the shark keeps eating people — locals who Nancy can’t warn because she can’t say "shark" in Spanish — a couple of tools, including a shark tooth (useful for cutting things) and a GoPro camera (useful for recording messages), float her way.
Imagine an off-brand remix of the Tom Hanks movie Castaway with better hair, an exponentially more attractive lead (Nancy unzips and re-zips her rash guard several times throughout the film), and almost none of the weighty philosophizing about human insignificance.
Oh, and toss in a vengeful shark.
At the start of the movie — before she encounters the toothy beast — Nancy scrolls through a bunch of photos of her mother on her phone, sliding through each picture with the flick of her thumb. It’s a fleeting moment, one that briefly made me think about how public our private vacations have become. The images of Nancy’s mom exhibit a pre–social media level of innocence.
Nowadays, because of Instagram and Snapchat and other social media platforms, we’re always thinking about how we portray ourselves. It’s always the best face forward, even though we could be like Nancy, and all ragged and broken inside.
The Shallows hints that it at least understands this dynamic. Nancy’s last technological act is a gruesome selfie of sorts, as she uses the GoPro to ask for help. But the movie isn’t interested in exploring that flicker of the idea.
Instead, The Shallows gives us Blake Lively riding a dead whale and hanging on for dear life, talking to a seagull, and trying to avoid becoming human tartare. The movie zips along, never showing too much emotion (although the bird displays a wide range). And ultimately, that’s probably for the best, because it allows you to fully enjoy the silliness and thrills of a fairly boilerplate shark movie — even if you know they all end the same way.
The Shallows is playing in theaters throughout the country.