The Shallows is a 2016 action thriller about a young woman trapped on a reef while being hunted by a massive great white shark.
Enjoying a little “me” time, Nancy Adams (Blake Lively) heads to a secluded beach somewhere in Mexico, a place where her mother had once come while pregnant for Nancy. There’s a few other reasons why Nancy took the trek to the waters, but the point is she ends up surfing the pristine waters alone only to get trapped on a reef outcropping far from shore as a particularly menacing great white shark decides that dinner tonight will be one serving of fresh, lightly-tanned human-girl, Sushi style on a bed of saltwater seaweed.
Naturally, the story, despite the very real shark and numerous pointy teeth that come with it, is a metaphor for the journey Nancy must take in her life, but that’s not why we’re here (yet, read on). We’re here to see Lively in a skimpy orange bikini teach ocean predators that even though we crawled out of the water eons ago, we can still take the fight back to the waves with plenty of smack. Let’s look at one moment that has much to say about what we’re really seeing.
THAT MOMENT IN: So there’s Nancy on the water, soaking up the sun and fun, riding a good wave when ‘boom’ comes the shark and knocks her off her board. It then takes a sample of the entrée, biting Nancy’s leg before swimming off to circle ’round and make good on its delicious intentions. Luckily for Nancy though, just within swimming distance is a floating, near-dead humpback whale holding onto its last breath, so she scrambles for it and climbs (ick-inducingly) aboard, just before the shark makes a lunge. Lucky girl. Nancy, not the shark.
Now she has to make a choice, and with her safety whale about to be gutted, she decides her best option is to make a dash for a small bit of exposed reef not far from the whale. Thing is, she’s got to out-swim a creature that has, let’s face it, pretty much spent millions of years making swimming its thing. And rending. Rending seems awfully important.
With a bit of cunning, Nancy waits for the shark to attack the whale and then dives into the water opposite, then races for the rock as a seagull urges her on, sort of. The seagull is a whole other thing, but let’s stick to the moment for now. Here we have a pure classic movie moment of awesomeness as a beautiful, barely-dressed woman in distress is hunted by a relentless chomping monster with blood in the water and hope just an arm’s reach away. Will she make it? Of course she does. But is there something more we should be seeing?
Yes. The answer is yes. As mentioned, the story is a live-action metaphor for getting Nancy to act. She is at a crossroads in her life. The recent death of her mother has left her feeling directionless, questioning her motivation to stay in medical school and pursue her dreams. That big ol’ whale in the water is the the literal hump in her path that she clings to, a bloated representation of the complacency in her current situation and the almost gripping need to remain where she is, no matter how precarious. Staying afloat is all she wants to do.
The shark of course is fear, the ever-present, looming bite of the unknown, a tireless, hungry beast that prevents Nancy from moving on. It circles here. It hunts her. It wants nothing but to end her. It has no agenda other than to upend her progress and to constantly put her in peril, even if she doesn’t see that each time it does, it pushes her further to shore in every sense of the word. It’s not easy to move forward sometimes, especially if we can’t find meaning in our actions, and with The Shallows, for Nancy, she must confront her past, the death of her mother, and the reasons for why she needs to make her own path. Leaping from the whale carcass puts her in the water, both literally and figuratively, as she must fight it to survive. We are all wounded in some way, hence the blood in the water, and fear feeds on it, so the shark draws near. Always drawing near.
The seagull is freedom, the power to be above it all, but one that is earned. It is constantly with Nancy, itself tirelessly by her side, smaller, more fragile, and yet hopeful. What’s important is that, like her, the bird is rendered flightless, a reflection of Nancy herself. This is crucial because Nancy takes the bird under her wing, if you’ll forgive the wording. She literally takes hope to task, holding it, nurturing it, and in the end (spoilers) rescuing it. That she calls it “Steven Seagull” (homaging Steven Seagal) is funny, but we might even say appropriate, as the action movie star has long been a hero who battles against terrible odds.
The Shallows disguises itself as a standard horror, monster-in-the-dark movie, and succeeds pretty much for it, though beneath the waves is something we can all take to heart. While the movie is fun to watch for the thrills, the film offers more than creature feature action, instead, making a story about a young woman’s need to start her journey again, understand and then let go of her past, and face the fears that hold her back. Not bad for a shark movie.