(Warning: Spoilers for The Shallows below)
Once again, my partner and I found ourselves on a rainy New Zealand Sunday with not much to do. We decided to jump on the bandwagon and head out with our flatmates to the cinema and check out the latest shark attack movie The Shallows.
The Shallows is an American film directed by Jaume Collet-Serra (Orphan, Run All Night), written by Anthony Jaswinski (Vanishing On 7th Street) and starring Blake Lively (Gossip Girl). It follows the horrifying story of a young medical student named Nancy who arrives at the unnamed beach her mother visited while pregnant with her, and ends up stranded atop a coral reef 200 yards from the shore while a gigantic great white stalks her from the water.
Thinking I was going in to see another B-grade shark attack movie, I actually found myself being pleasantly surprised by both the acting and the story. Blake Lively’s performance was awesome, and in combination with the writing, lead me to wonder exactly what genre of story I was actually seeing play out in front of me.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of pulp-horror shark attack action in the film to keep viewers into that sort of thing entertained. However, what really held the movie up above others of the genre, was its focus of characterization and the progression of Nancy from indecisive student, dancing around unsure of whether she’s dropping out or not, to a strong, courageous woman who knows her purpose.
Let Me Explain
It would be accurate to say that The Shallows is a survival horror film. You cannot escape the inherent survival horror nature of the story. The tropes are all there — an impossibly dangerous monster, the lone female character struggling for her life, little to no weapons, etc.
However, you could also be accurate in saying that The Shallows is a coming of age film. In the writing craft, we would call this kind of narrative a bildungsroman story. Don’t let the weird Latin sounding name fool you, it pretty much just means a story where a protagonist experiences something that causes them to grow up.
The Shallows As A Coming Of Age Tale
Usually, at the beginning of a bildungsroman story, the protagonist will experience an emotional loss, forcing them out on their journey. From there, the character’s goal becomes emotional maturity which is achieved gradually through several difficulties.
In The Shallows Nancy has all but dropped out of medical school after the death of her mother from cancer. Nancy becomes a nomad of sorts, traveling around the world trying to reconcile the ferocity of her mother's fight against her disease with the fact that in the end, determination got her nowhere.
Another aspect of the bildungsroman genre that features in The Shallows is that there will tend to be a major conflict between the main character and society, which by the story’s end, will be reconciled in some way.
Our protagonist Nancy experiences increasingly terrifying encounters with the monstrous shark, narrowly surviving through each one, eventually growing and learning that as human beings we should fight, no matter what adversity comes our way and regardless of the outcome we might experience. As Nancy says into the lens of a helmet cam near the end of the film:
“I want you to know Dad, that I’m going to fight, just like Mom did.” (paraphrased)
For our protagonist Nancy, her father represents society, and the conflict is her running off to Mexico instead of dealing with her grief. Over a video call with her younger sister and her father, Nancy is implored by her dad/society to come back home and return to med school. Helping people makes her happy, her father tells her. Nancy however, refuses, opting to go surfing instead.
A final interesting thing to note about the movie is the character of Steven Seagull. When she is initially attacked by the shark, Nancy finds herself trapped on a cluster of rocks with a wounded seagull she lightheartedly names Steven. Initially, you think of the seagull as being a scavenger, waiting for her to die, and while this may be true on a purely literal interpretation of the film, thematically, I believe that the seagull actually represents Nancy’s mother.
The seagull, like Nancy’s Mom was, is wounded with quite probably no hope for survival against its present circumstances. Nancy, being stranded and alone, develops a somewhat emotional connection with the creature, and manages to help it in a way that she was unable to help her Mom (by relocating its wing and allowing the bird to be able to fly again, Nancy offers healing to the bird), this signals an important shift in the narrative, as around the same time, Nancy begins to remember her passion for becoming a doctor and finds in herself a new resolve to fight against the shark.
Upon prevailing against the monster and washing up on shore, Nancy experiences a hallucination in which she sees her Mother, smiling and healthy looking down upon her. Dispersed throughout this vision, Nancy spots the seagull on the beach, having survived.
The film ends by jumping one year in the future, where a stronger, more confident Nancy approaches the shoreline of a beautiful sandy beach, showing much more maturity in her dialogue, she converses with her father who is this time with her, before running out to surf the waves with her kid sister, her connection with her family/society has been re-established.
The main character Nancy, suffering from her mother’s death, runs away from her family. She experiences several life-threatening encounters with a great white shark, which causes her to grow and reconcile with the ones she loves. There is also a seagull named Stephen who is actually her Mom. This story is not only a survival horror, but also a coming of age story in a traditional sense.
Overall, I was pretty impressed with The Shallows. Some of the CGI was a bit corny, but from a narrative perspective, The Shallows offers a lot more than just your standard shark attack fare. Combined with solid performances by the small cast of actors, this movie is definitely something you all should check out.
Check out some of the best killer shark action in the video below and think twice before going out for that end-of-summer swim:
Agree or disagree with my interpretation? Let me know in the comments below.