Nothing too deep in The Shallows

The Shallows

2016 | 86min

Jaume Collet-Serra

There is a subgenre inside animal attack movies where someone has to conquer grief by conquering a killer animal. The Requin (2022), Jaws: The Revenge (1987) and Bait (2013) are some examples where a shark attack is balm for the soul somehow. It’s a sort of conquering one’s self through conquering nature. Even where the main characters are women it’s still what Val Plumwood called a “masculinist monster myth.” Jaume Collet-Serra’s The Shallows is very much one of these stories.

Nancy (Blake Lively) is a med student mourning the loss of her mother and taking a break from school. She and a friend take a trip to Mexico to visit a beach her mother did while she was pregnant with Nancy. The trip to the beach is good and funny with Nancy mangling both spanish and corrections to spanish from her ride who is humoring her. She’s the very mildly annoying and slightly racist tourist that wouldn’t leave an impression on anyone. Nancy browses her phone and wistfully remembers her mum before making it to the beach and going out for a surf.

Nancy eventually finds herself alone near a humongous whale carcass where a great white shark is feeding. This is where everything goes wrong for Nancy and the film. Instead of continuing to feed on the mineral rich marine mammal blubber that great white sharks thrive on and heavily favor as their preferred food, the shark goes and knocks Nancy off her board and for the remaining hour in the film, it’s Woman vs. Shark.

All this might not be a problem if most of what you know about sharks comes from shark attack movies. A lot of people know that surfing is an activity where many of the infrequent real world shark attacks take place. The film is gorgeously shot, well paced and Blake Lively’s performance is tremendous. There’s a lot to like and the plot makes sense at a very superficial level. But if you know even a tiny bit about shark ecology the film becomes odd quickly, and by the end farcical. By this I don’t just mean little things like how you can see the base of the dorsal fin above the surface several times but never any part of the tail fin.

The shark in the film appears to be around 16ft long so probably weighs around one ton. This means it needs around sixty pounds of food every few days. And it has been feasting on a whale carcass. So why would it even bother Nancy? Or kill three other people, presumably eating some of them at least. It’s not just that a shark wouldn’t do those things, it’s that it couldn’t do most of them. A shark cannot eat two and a half people over a period of hours. It’s simply not capable of it. An adult great white shark could not ram a huge whale carcass from the bottom and lift it into the air. The film shark continually circles the rock where Nancy is stranded. Why? The shark instantly goes after people as soon as they get in the water. Why? Sharks don’t, and often can’t, do any of this.

The big problem here is that the shark isn’t a metaphor nor is it a spirit haunting the bay as with folk horror. It’s supposed to just be a shark. But this isn’t a shark, it’s a monster. And because it’s a monster, Nancy cannot simply be rescued, she has to kill the monster. Collet-Serra can’t figure out how to create effective drama in an encounter between a giant fish that is, in very rare circumstances, actually dangerous to people and a surfer, so he has to enact a series of increasingly ridiculous scenarios to move the story forward. He takes a great performance, solid effects and good photography and wastes it.