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.

Big fish, little plot


2013 | 90min

Larry Fessenden

While studying the nature horror subgenre of animal attack movies I’ve watched over two hundred films, most of them multiple times. By number these are mostly shark attack movies but also include various killer crocodilians, lizards, birds, insects and more. Most times I end up rooting for the animal. Rarely do I root for it so strongly as I do for the big ass fish that is eating bratty teens in Larry Fessenden’s Beneath.

Beneath opens with a group of white teens organizing an outdoor party. To get to their preferred party spot they have to cross a lake. One of the kids stops the boat mid-lake to go for a swim against the recommendation of another kid who is suspiciously opposed to both stopping the boat and swimming. He knows something. That something is the lake hosts a fish monster that doesn’t appreciate company in the water.

In most animal attack films one of my central concerns is: can the animal in question actually do any of the things iit does in the film? Can any fish really eat three people? That’s not relevant to Beneath. The fish isn’t supposed to be a real fish. Rather than nature horror, the film is closer to folk horror with the killer fish being a lake spirit and not a piece of nature for heroic men to conquer.

Like a lot of horror films, Fessenden’s point isn’t really that a monster is hunting them. Instead he is more interested in how monstrous people are to each other. It’s all very Stephen King. It’s clear Fessenden doesn’t like his characters but it’s hard to tell if he is making one of those misanthropic ‘human nature’ stories about trying situations bringing out the absolute worst in people or if he just wanted to make a film where a bunch of assholes get eaten by a big fish. This is the central failing of Beneath. It’s really easy to root for the fish when the kindest character in the film is a sex pest who doesn’t abide boundaries and it’s clear we’re not supposed to root for the people. But after that, it’s not at all clear what we’re supposed to do with the story. And there goes all the fun.

A little chum

Shark Bait

2022 | 87min

Dir. James Nunn

Shark Bait asks a very common horror genre question: What if a bunch of young, good looking people without the skills to survive an untied shoestring were all of a sudden in a situation with a high probability of death? Sometimes this means they’re at a summer camp and an abnormally violent hockey goalie (or his mum!) is stalking them like in Friday the 13th. Sometimes a knife wielding incel with daddy issues starts going after his schoolmates like in Scream. And sometimes, like in Shark Bait, a bunch of annoying tourists find out the consequence of their actions is a very hungry shark.

Shark Bait opens with young American tourists in Mexico partying on an ocean beach. They get drunk and the following morning decide to steal two jetskis and head out to the ocean for some drunk driving without life vests. Two of the dudes wreck the jetskis while dick measuring which leaves the three men and two women stranded far out to sea. From there it’s Humans vs. Shark until the credits roll.

Shark Bait uses a bunch of the most common horror tropes. A girl shows her breasts therefore must die because The Whores Must Be Punished! in one of horror’s more misogynist premises. No clear and obvious solutions can be pursued like: turn the other jetski over and see if it works or tie them together for a larger surface. There is even a Final Girl who develops Final Girl Skills out of nowhere, perhaps from her purity ring. 

Shark Bait also deploys the silliest part of all shark attack movies in that the filmmakers never think to ask: can sharks actually do all this? Can one adult great white shark eat five adult humans over 24 hours? Not even if it was the shark Joey Chestnut. Do great white sharks pursue speedy prey over long distances? Also no. A few species of sharks on very rare occasions, do kill and eat people. It’s hard to imagine going through something that horrible and terrifying. Yet, somehow, filmmakers do not understand that being eaten by a shark is horrible and terrifying so they have to exaggerate the shark’s capabilities to create something monstrous in its place. Less of an issue but still a scientific puzzle is: where are the remoras? You’d think in one of these shark attack movies there would be a couple of remoras scooping up people crumbs from the sharks but, nope.

Shark Bait is well shot and paced but weighed down by a bad script. The story is thematically bad, full of cliches, and odd decision making, and has British phraseology that sounds off through American accents. Usually American accents anyway. All of the actors drop their accents at some point, usually while yelling. The performances were fine, especially Cat Hannay, but sometimes it was pretty obvious that there were some gaps in their White American Non-Regional Diction practice. And really, if they had been bad actors it wouldn’t have changed all that much. There’s only so many different techniques you can use to shovel cliches. All in all, a run of the mill shark attack movie where you root for the shark a little more than in most others. Because tourists are awful.