The legacy of the cinematic shark has been a dicey one, post-Jaws. While Spielberg’s classic may have sparked a new era of blockbuster filmmaking, it also inspired plenty of imitators, most of whom decided the best way to differentiate themselves from the original was to amp up the absurdity. Observe the arc of Shark Silliness plotted against time: the 1983 data point of Jaws: The Revenge (“not simply a bad movie, but also a stupid and incompetent one”); 1999 offers up Deep Blue Sea, which features super-intelligent cyber-sharks; before long we’re way up in the silliness axis with stuff like Mega Shark Versus Giant Octopus and Sharknado.
Trust Jaume Collet-Serra to bring things back to earth (or water, at least). The Barcelona-born director has become one of Hollywood’s few remaining genre craftsman, offering up tightly-constructed horror (Orphan) and action (Non-Stop) films that resist the temptation of the sequel – or even, the cinematic universe – that plagues contemporary blockbusters. Collet-Serra’s films are not masterpieces, but they’re about as good as you could expect; they’re fun, they look good, and they keep you interested in something other than what’s going to happen in the next movie.
The Shallows, Collet-Serra’s latest, has a simple task: make sharks scary again. And it succeeds admirably. Plunking Blake Lively’s surfer/med-student Nancy on an abandoned Mexican beach, the film starts turning the traditional horror movie screws long before we end up at the woman vs shark scenario. There’s the cold open flash-forward, which reminds audiences who may have stumbled into the wrong cinema that is, in fact, a movie about a killer shark. Then there’s the undercurrent of tension below the beautiful surf (filmed on and around the Gold Coast and Lord Howe Island); even as we admire the sparkling blue sea and the surfers’ gnarly moves, Collet-Serra continues to offer fragmentary reminders of the terror to come. (And, since this is a populist horror movie, there are plenty of fake outs, too; most notably a dolphin that scared the bejeezus out of both Lively and our packed preview audience.)
Lively makes a capable leading lady, even before the shark rears its toothy maw. I admit that, until recently, she’d never made much of an impact on me; perhaps I needed to watch more (any) Gossip Girl. But a role like this requires an actor with enough commitment and consistency to nail the mix of resilience and vulnerability that allows us to empathise with their plight while cheering on their fight.
By and large, this is a role defined by physicality – it’s not like there are extended conversations between Lively’s character and the shark (nor her occasional avian companion, Sir Steven Seagull, who accompanies her on a rock that’s adamantly disappearing beneath the sea). In this respect, Collet-Serra stumbles onto something interesting in the way he probes the dichotomy between Lively as a sex symbol and Lively as a heroine. (I say “stumbles onto” because, as much as I love the guy’s work, he is responsible for a film where a bomb was smuggled onto a plane inside a briefcase full of cocaine. He’s a doer, not a thinker.)
The evidence of the ‘sex symbol’ side of the ledger is pretty straightforward. Lively spends the vast majority of the film in a skimpy two-piece bikini and a wetsuit top (and often, not even the latter). Early on the film, the camera unashamedly leers at her figure as she readies to head into the surf for the first time. But these close-ups of boobs and butts are intercut into a sharply-edited montage of preparation – surfboard waxing and Velcro attaching – that resembles the superhero-gearing-up montage so prevalent in ‘90s cinema (and cleverly parodied in Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz). Thus, Collet-Serra frames Nancy as an action hero and a pretty girl in a bikini in the one gesture. (Contrast this with your typical horror film, where sexiness = death.)
I’m probably – definitely – overthinking things, but this duality is heightened when shit gets real (and shark-y). When Nancy stumbles upon a dead whale way off shore, she inadvertently disturbs said shark’s feeding ground, which goes some way towards explaining its reaction. (You see, it’s not a relentless killing machine; it’s just territorial AF.)
The shark takes a bite out of her leg, forcing her to seek shelter on the aforementioned temporary island. The camera lingers in gory detail as Nancy draws on her med school experience – and a few bracelets, necklaces and earrings – to stitch her wounds. Her wetsuit becomes a tourniquet meaning, yes, she’s back in that skimpy bikini. But it’s hard to imagine anyone thinking that this scene is supposed to be sexy; besides, when the weather turns cold overnight, the screenplay is smart enough to have Lively slip the wetsuit back on.
But what’s especially interesting about this scene is how it resists the objectification of Nancy’s body by reminding us that it is a lived, fragile body. It’s also interesting that the equipment she uses to mend herself are traditionally feminine, ‘surfy’ accoutrements: it’s as though her makeshift surgery is a refutation to her father’s (Brett Cullen’s) Facetime tsk-tsk-ing at her holiday. In the wake of Nancy’s mother’s death, perhaps the holiday is intended as an escape – from life, from medicine. But perhaps ‘hot surfer chick’ and ‘successful doctor’ can comfortably co-exist, dad.
Anyway, all this rambling might lead you to the misconception that The Shallows is some arty, ‘deep’ take on genre cinema. It’s not, really. While this (likely unintentional) commentary on the immiscibility of sexuality and heroism is interesting and all, we should remember that this is fundamentally a film about Blake Lively fighting a big scary shark. To that end, it largely succeeds. I can quibble about the ending – the ingenious yet implausible way the confrontation ends, or the sappy, sun-drenched coda – but that’s part and parcel with Collet-Serra’s cinema. This is populist filmmaking that requires neat character arcs and happy endings, but I can suffer through that for a shark that’s actually – gasp – pretty dang scary.