Summer 2016 so far has turned out to be another summer full of sequels and franchise films (think The Conjuring 2, Finding Dory and Independence Day 2 to name a few). Typically, films that are released during the summer, otherwise known as summer blockbusters, serve one purpose. That purpose is to entertain. Those types of films are popcorn films. Films that are meant to entertain and that do not offer much intellectual stimulation. Don’t get me wrong, watching an escapist film is not a bad thing. Most of those films are fun and exciting, but beyond what is seen on the screen, there is not much else. What we see is what we get.
Jaume Collet-Serra’s (Orphan, Non-Stop) latest film, The Shallows, starring Blake Lively, could be this summer’s hidden existentially stimulating film, disguised as a killer shark attack film. In the film, Blake Lively plays Nancy Adams, a medical school drop out who travels to a secret beach in Mexico while grieving the loss of her mother from cancer. Although, the film doesn’t offer much backstory, we know that Nancy’s mother died of cancer from photos that Nancy looks at on her phone that are superimposed onto the film screen, taking up about half the screen. We are not sure, though, when exactly Nancy’s mother died. That information is never given. We know that Nancy is a medical school dropout from a conversation that she has with her father through a Face Time style feature on her cellphone. This conversation with her father is also superimposed on the screen. Nancy knows of the secret beach because her mother knew the secret. From the photos on Nancy’s phone, we see that Nancy’s mother would frequent the secret beach numerous times, particularly, when she was pregnant with Nancy. Again this is seen in the pictures but also from a conversation that Nancy has with two Mexican surfers she encounters in the ocean.
To compete in the summer market, The Shallows was marketed as a shark attack film. Though the film does feature a killer shark, The Shallows works more as a survival thriller film of a woman trapped in the ocean being stalked by a menacing shark. The film does not feature a giant, mutant, genetically modified shark, but instead a realistic shark. What makes this film terrifying is how realistic the film is. The realism and minimalism is what distinguishes this film as more of a survival film as opposed to a shark attack film. What Steven Spielberg started with Jaws, The Shallows picks up. The film does feature several shark attacks, but they are not over the top. What keeps the film engaging is watching Blake Lively’s character figure out how she will survive and succeed in defeating the shark that keeps stalking her as she’s stranded on a rock in the ocean. The film is a cat and mouse game, or rather a shark vs woman as Nancy struggles to survive and outlive the shark. The film becomes a contemplative film of survival and struggle, not only of surviving the shark, but also of Nancy’s existence and meaning in this world. After Nancy’s mother’s death, Nancy feels as though she doesn’t have much of a purpose to live. What’s the point of trying to help people if some can’t be saved, she says as she talks to her father about dropping out of medical school. While Nancy struggles to survive and suffers and existential dilemma on the rock in the ocean, an injured seagull accompanies her. The seagull can be seen as divine intervention, either that of her mother’s spirit or Nancy’s guardian angel looking after her. The seagull provides hope for Nancy when all other hope is lost.
The film is exquisitely well crafted and made and beautifully shot. In the beginning of the film, the film is shot almost as if the film was some sort of promotional travel video selling Mexico (or rather Australia, which the is the actual shooting location) as the ultimate travel location. This relaxing, carefree tone is changed, however, as the shark enters the picture. The Shallows is highly recommended to cinemagoers who are not only interested in seeing a killer shark movie, but also who want a deeper, existential survival film that offers realism and hope.