About one third of the way through The Shallows, Michael turned to me and whispered, “This movie’s horrible.” By “horrible” he did not mean “bad” – but rather “incredibly disturbing” (my words, though I believe they’re correctly inferred, and, I would add, the movie was so “incredibly disturbing” that it was frickin’ awesome!) To be fair, it’s hard to create a contemporary incarnation of Spielberg’s esteemed Jaws, and Jaws is the lofty barometer against which any shark film (save perhaps Sharknaodo) will be measured. There is, to be sure, only one Jaws, but The Shallows is excellent because it never imitates, never pretends to be some millennial version of the Spielberg classic, and never shies away from being its grotesque, gut-wrenching but semi-hip self. No bearded fisherman smoking, fighting, comparing scars, and singing “Show me the way to go home…” in this film—no. We only see sexy, svelte, but terrified Nancy (Blake Lively) sprawled out on a rock, panting, contemplating what she needs to do to survive in the middle of a sparkling, shark-infested ocean.
The premise of The Shallows is fairly simple. Nancy has recently lost her mother to a battle with cancer – though we’re not sure how recently – and she wants to return to her mom’s favorite beach in Mexico. She takes a friend with her, but her friend bails on the beach trip, so Nancy finds herself alone with a cell phone and a surf board on an expansive, gorgeous beach. We learn, through a phone call between Nancy and her family, that she also has an adoring younger sister and an ambitious father who doesn’t think she should drop out of med school at Baylor (which she’s considering). We sense that she’s seeking sanctuary and fleeing demons, though most of them are unnamed. She tells her father she’s not sure when she’ll call him again, not sure when she’ll leave Mexico.
The film spends a noteworthy amount of time showing Nancy surfing. She’s sun-kissed and beautiful and catches colossal waves with enviable ease. I had a feeling I wouldn’t gravitate toward surfing by the movie’s conclusion (I was right!), but it certainly looked like an enticing past-time in the beginning of the film. The film is very intentional in showcasing the physical beauty of Nancy’s surroundings. Early in the movie, the friendly local who gives her a free car ride from the hotel to the beach even tells Nancy to put down her cell phone and admire the natural wonder around her. In that sense, the movie deviates from my typical fare on this site, horror movies that often take place in basements or decrepit attics. The suggestion of The Shallows seems to be that if a place looks too good to be true, then it probably is, or that sometimes that which appears most serene and perfect is really deadly. This is a movie that makes us afraid of beauty and makes us appall perfection.
The Shallows, then, suggests that nature, ostensibly grand, calm, and unassuming, is full of might – including the powerful, dangerous, hidden unknowns. This is especially explicit in one scene. Nancy must swim from a rock to a buoy without being caught by the vicious predator. As she’s about to begin her swim, hundreds of live jelly fish drift to the surface of the water. They’re stunning in their silver-white iridescence, but everyone knows what Jellyfish do: they sting. Badly. They hurt. They are as dangerous as they are beautiful.
Of course, beauty is not associated with evil in this film like it is with a lot of horror – only with the wild, biting caprice of the natural world. Which is possibly what’s the scariest about this film. In front of the breathtaking backdrops is a lot of blood, gore, and scenes that will make you wince and hide your eyes, but the pain we witness is not the result of (possibly) fictitious entities like ghosts or demons. We feel like we may never want to brave an ocean again, lest we end up like Nancy. Ask my sister, who’s had a (seemingly) hyperbolic fear of sharks since a young age: these are real animals that can kill you and have killed people in the past. Sharks are ferocious and captivating, but they are deadly, if in the most innocent of ways – they have been programmed by nature to kill.
Because a trapped young woman faces, on her own – without the ships and shark experts of Jaws – a hungry, ferocious behemoth, in a scenario that seems completely plausible as you watch the film, this flick will consistently captivate even more jaded filmgoers. Of course, it’s a shark movie, so it’s not full of jump scares, but it’s a frantic, seemingly realistic depiction of false paradise, with all its picturesque allurement and elusive danger. Oh – and Blake Lively does a great job. I felt much warmth toward her character, and rooted for her throughout the film. It’s not an easy movie watch, but it’s worthwhile. Though it may alarm the faint of heart, The Shallows definitely merits a theater viewing.