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.

Die Shark! Die!

Thanks to Noah Berlatsky for a much improved title!


Jaume Coller-Serra’s new film The Shallows follows Blake Lively in a test of wills against a great white shark. Apart from an unintentionally farcical and groan-inducing last act, it’s a pretty well shot and acted story. It is one of countless stories about wild beasts threatening the lives of humans. Most of these are, from a statistical or scientific perspective, no less ridiculous than The Shallows‘ silly conclusion. These stories almost always involve absurd science. And towards what end that bad science is deployed tells us a lot, as does the selection of which killer animals are portrayed.

In The Shallows Blake Lively’s character is out surfing when she happens upon a whale carcass. A shark near the carcass sees her as a potential meal and decides to have a bite to eat. Over the next day the shark ignores the massive quantity of food available with the whale carcass while stalking Lively, and during that time eats two and a half other people.

All this is exceedingly unlikely. The shark ate somewhere around 200kg of people over those two days which is, using the most conservative estimates, around two months of food for an adult great white (other studies suggest this is closer to six months worth of soylent green). So the shark ignores (or leaves, it’s not clear) a massive whale carcass which could feed a host of sharks for months and instead goes after a bunch of swimmers and surfers that don’t have the yummy (for sharks) smell of rotting meat. And it does so in order to overeat by quite a bit! For contrast in the infamous 1916 New Jersey shark attacks a shark ate a maximum of .3 people over twelve days (though it killed four).

This is common in these kinds of stories. For example the T-Rex in Jurassic Park should be done eating after she eats the company stooge. That’s (probably) enough calories for a T-Rex for two days. That it keeps hunting seems pretty unlikely. The shark in Jaws eats even more beyond its likely diet. And it is exactly this voraciousness that identifies the creatures as antagonists in these stories.

There is a species power dynamic in play obscured by this. My back of the envelope math says humans comprise about .0000042% of deaths in fatal human-shark encounters. No big surprise here. It’s common enough knowledge that humans kill exponentially more sharks than the other way around. And given the challenge in imagining a shark’s point of view, it isn’t all that surprising that humans with almost no exceptions tell the stories of those .0000042% of fatalities rather than the 99.9999958% percent of them. Sure, the Discovery Channel trots out the annual shark slaughter statistics during “Shark Week” but they’re invariably mixed with stories of shark attacks lending a false narrative symmetry even as the statistical symmetry is denied. Man-eating bear, wolf, lion, snake and other such stories all follow this same pattern.

This is how power generally works, both between our species and others and inside our own species. The oppressive relationship is inverted no matter what the science says. So despite all populations using and selling drugs at nearly identical rates, it is Black people who are portrayed as the drug-dealing criminals thus positioning them not as victims of racist mass incarceration, but as justifications for the oppressive system. Despite Israel dispossessing Palestinians on a daily basic, it is Palestinians that are portrayed as the violent aggressors, much as natives are commonly portrayed in US Western stories. The dynamic is analogous to how the tv show Zoo tells of a worldwide animal revolt that threatens humanity while we are in the midst of an anthropocene/capitalocene mass extinction event. The bad science of insatiable predators is deployed justifies the bad practice of exterminating them.

The inter- and intra-species analogies are, of course, imperfect even as the racist narratives invoke a certain dehumanization and animality. But the racialized component of which killer animal stories are told tells us just as much about inverted narratives of threat and power. For some animals do kill, and even kill and eat, vast numbers of people every year. Blake Lively will likely never star in one of these stories.

Nile crocodiles kill somewhere between several hundred and several thousand people every year in Africa throughout their range. We don’t even have sound estimates because relatively few resources are dedicated to tracking African deaths. Crocodiles eat people on a daily basis because people have to spend so much time in crocodile habitats with minimal protection. Though there is nothing that would end crocodile attacks entirely, this largely isn’t a problem of reptilian predation , this is a problem of capitalism and colonialism. The stories told of crocodiles eating humans are instead like Lake Placid, a fun film that is science fiction both because of the vast numbers of people consumed and because of which people are consumed. Out of some three dozens feature lengths films about killer crocodiles and alligators, I know of only one that takes place in Africa, 2006’s Primeval, a racist story of white people in constant danger from both Burundians and the crocodile.

Though not eating us, snakes kills tens of thousands of people every year, predominantly in South and Southeast Asia (and to a lesser extent in Africa and parts of South America). These are predominantly tied to poor labor and housing conditions which are, again, a problem of capitalism and colonialism. The Anaconda tetralogy and Snakes on a Plane do not tell these stories.

Dominating both of these are mosquito-related deaths which number in the hundreds of thousands every year despite malaria being, for the most part, easily treatable were resources dedicated to the task.

These killer animal stories are not told on screen because the victims aren’t fully human in the eyes of those choosing what stories get produced. And those stories with fully human victims like The Shallows invariably invert the material world predator-prey relationship. The exceptions are exceedingly rare and even then are told with circumscribed or regressive politics. The Ghost and the Darkness and Prey for example, are pro-colonialism stories of animals preying on humans based upon the man-eating lions of Tsavo. The body count is attributed to lions and not the colonial railroad project (a dam in Prey‘s version) that brought people into the lions’ habitat in the first place. But telling such stories can illuminate vast political economic problems and indicts the systems that produce the death tolls. Capitalism and colonialism continually produce horror stories of animals killing people with body counts beyond all but apocalyptic imaginations. Jaws simply cannot compete.