‘The Shallows’ Is to Shark What ‘Gravity’ Was to Space, and Both Are Done Great Disservices By Words

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In the first round of reviews that’ve come out about Orphan director Jaume Collet-Serra The Shallows, the movie’s been praised pretty much for what it is — a shallow but exhilarating movie whose premise is: bikini-ed Blake Lively stranded on rock, battling an engorged toothy fish (sure, call it a shark). The action is laudably well-shot, the cunning machinations of the toothy fish well choreographed, the oceanic unknown looking particularly daunting. But the ways in which the film desperately attempts to integrate convention-and-attention-span-sustaining speech into a movie about isolation makes the whole endeavor feel silly (in the bad way, not the expected Blake-Lively-v.-shark way), and this aspect is such a distraction that, at least for this viewer, it prevented total immersion in the film’s scares and tensions. I had a similar problem with a film that was taken far more seriously (though, as a sort of surprised reaction to how shitty The Shallows was presumed to be, critics have taken it pretty damn seriously), but perhaps shouldn’t have been: Gravity, which bares vast structural, stylistic and thematic similarities to The Shallows.

The ways in which The Shallows attempts to imbue its central character (well, really, only character, with the exception of a smattering of Mexican people who come along to either very quickly die or try to save Blake Lively) with a history, and thus character motivation, are so crudely framed as to undercut a good deal of the tension. In trying to add weight through text and character to be slightly more than enjoyable aestheticized summer garbage for enjoyable aestheticized summer garbage’s sake, the movie only makes itself summer garbage-ier, but less enjoyable.

The clumsy exposition and, erm, “character development” come in following the initial set-up, in which Lively’s character Nancy — Hollywood’s sexy white blonde idea of what an EveryAmerican whose shark attack you can sympathize with needs to look like — hitchhikes to a remote beach in Mexico. The first bit of exposition arrives when, before getting in the water, Nancy flips through images in her phone — which conveniently seems to only contain three very telling pictures, all showing the narrative of her mother’s life as a former surfer and her battle with cancer, from which she recently died. In three incidentally perfectly curated photos! One image shows her mother surfing back when she was Nancy’s age, another shows her being older and mom-ier, and the third shows her on chemotherapy, wearing a cap to cover her bald head.

It’s such a crude display of lazy character/plot-building as to be almost campy, but the way it intersects with the legitimately well-made action and truly disquieting shots of the ocean — like one aerial shot of the transparent turquoise water darkening as it gets further from the shore, and of Nancy approaching that darkness — cheapens the latter while making the former harder to enjoy as camp. The other necessary information we get comes through a message on her phone from her sister, in which we also find out she’s almost done with medical school. (But took a hiatus when her mom got sick). This will obviously come in handy with the medical issue of dealing with a shark-shredded leg, which, oh right I’m getting to:

After she surfs for a while, the two other people at the beach leave; Nancy decides to stay to catch one tubular ride, but pre-tubular ride, she spots a whale, and swims towards it, only to realize it was a whale but is now a fetid flesh-mound with a deep gash in its belly. And then comes the belly-gashing shark, who proceeds to attack Blake Lively, leaving a deep slit down her thigh on which the camera loves to linger. The body horror-factor of the aftermath is far more potent than the shark itself; it’s a different type of scare tactic, that which evokes an “ew” rather than a “aaah,” and watching her leg wax gangrenous across the film was, for me, the more harrowing experience to be seen here.

And then there’s the fucking seagull — who you may have already heard about; “Steven Seagull” is another tonally bizarre addition that makes it hard to be truly shaken by the film. Oddly, my greatest sentimental attachment in the film was to this damn seagull, but that also made me feel like I was watching three separate films: a cute, sentimental kids’ movie about a stranded seagull (who, goddamn it, I cared about), a harrowing and unsentimental movie about a woman trying to survive, and then a crudely written grief drama.

Rather than coalescing to give depth to the horror, as they were clearly supposed to, they all just read as the odd, transparent strategies they were to have your shark-isolation-horror-film and eat it too. In order to sustain a 90-minute film, The Shallows writer Anthony Jaswinski (yes, it has a writer!) saw the need to give stranded Nancy something to talk to. And so a wounded seagull ends up on the rock with her, and proves to be an excellent listener. Similarly, the movie is sure to make her one of those people who not only talk to seagulls, but also to herself: as she’s dressing her wounds with scraps of her wetsuit, she talks to herself like a nurse comforting a patient, in a moment that reads like someone just wrote a page of the script that says “personality.” (Given that, Lively performs it with as much commitment and convincingness as someone stuck on a rock in the middle of the ocean, sewing up a wound with a necklace, reciting an expositional monologue about their professional proclivities as a shark hovers around, possibly could).

Gravity, another story of isolation and survival out in a cruel, abyss-like environment, in which the main, medically oriented strong female protagonist floats, and from which she can see but not access solid ground, would have been more effective if it had embraced its situational propensity for wordlessness. As some other reviews have already noted, The Shallows seems to have aimed to have the same type of appeal as the space-catastrophe film. There, father/son writer/director team Alfonso and Jonás Cuarón decided to give Sandra Bullock’s biomedical engineer character a dead daughter, similarly fueling the searching-for-self-within-the-abyss impulse of the character in their mourning. That same sadness and emotional lostness could have been surmised without the concrete facts — or with subtler hints at those facts.

Though Gravity‘s strengths were in its vertiginous visuals and its silent visions of human v. expanses, it still felt the need to break the grace of those moments with impositions of conventional plot, delivered verbally to no one in particular. Character can be captured gesturally, through facial expressions, through sounds, or incomplete sentences that don’t happen to conveniently spell out a character’s past. Requiring that a character practically soliloquize their story — with a convenient false interlocutor, like a seagull and a cell phone and a digital camera in The Shallows, or Mission Control and a phantasmal George Clooney in Gravity — detracts from the physical specificities of both of these films, fracturing them into planes of meticulous corporeal terror and broad emotional drama. The Shallows will certainly not be considered the Drama of the Year, but it still seems questionable that Gravity ever was.

Hollywood movies are very frequently scolded for being shallow, but it’s often not in their focus on visuals or physicality that they seem thus, but rather in their cursory attempts to imbue these things with depth through clichéd text that might as well come prepackaged in a screenwriting kit. The visual storytelling in these films — which gets very quickly to very fundamental human fears, and can thus feel legitimately profound — is worth a thousand poignant, crudely character-revealing last messages home. They shouldn’t have tried in this vein to deepen The Shallows; it only makes it shallower.