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Lady Sharks Duel in 'The Shallows'

Both combatants are long, sleek, with beautiful teeth. But who'll win in this shark versus Blake Lively flick?

Dorothy Woodend 1 Jul 2016TheTyee.ca

Dorothy Woodend writes about film every other week for The Tyee. Find her previous articles here.

The season of the shark is upon us.

I've been waiting for a good shark movie for a while, and after dragging its tail the thing has finally appeared. The Shallows has been dubbed the best shark movie since Jaws. While I would not go that far, it's plenty of splashy good fun, with a few sanguine bits thrown to keep it lively. Blake Lively, that is. Word on the street is that film's star spent 14 hours at the gym every day in preparation for the role, and it shows in her pert backside and long lithe limbs. Add in beachy hair and a mouth full of perfect teeth, and what you have is a prime cut of shark bait.

This is a simple story -- a woman, a shark, and a seagull walk into a bar. Well, actually, they hang around a rock. Waiting for time and tide. Lively plays Nancy, a young med student/surfer trying to escape the grief of her mother's recent death (apparently from cancer). In the grip of an existential crisis along the lines of "What's it all about, if we all die, anyway?" she seeks answers, or perhaps solace, on a remote beach in Mexico, a place her mother visited when she first discovered she was pregnant with Nancy.

As this is a shark movie, one must endure a certain amount of preamble before we get to the main event. During the set up, one's mind is free to wonder: What preparations did Lively's erstwhile co-star undertake? How did she prepare for her role? What process was involved in getting bigger, faster and more vicious? Did she grow a few more rows of teeth? Did she have her fin sculpted to make it slice through the water just so? While we wait for the real star of the show to take the stage, we must content ourselves with boring Nancy. Director Jaume Collet-Serra also seems little interested in Nancy's backstory. The narrative provides us with a few thinly sketched indications that she's a nice girl, deserving of some sympathy (a cute little sister, a sad old dad).

Thankfully, such exposition is mercifully short. The film, like Nancy herself, wastes little time in stripping down and jumping in the water. There are a few toothsome scenes in this build up, including a lovely overhead shot of the young woman slicing through the emerald shallows, away from safety, towards the deeper, darker water. If you're like me, then you will already be searching every corner of the frame for some ominous shadow, some small sign that death from below is already there, hovering just beyond your field of vision. It is present; you just can't see it yet.

The film plays with different perspectives, meaning above and below. The action is filmed often right at the surface, with the camera bobbing in and out of the water, popping up like a seal and then diving back down to look up at the surfer's dangling legs. Like Jaws before it, this shifting perspective places you inside the mind, or at least the point of view of the shark. It would be interesting to take this a step or two further than the film actually does, and invest further in the shifting sense of empathy. After all, the real engine of the film is not the silly humans with their surfboards and their emotional problems who paddle about on the surface of things. It is this different kind of consciousness -- ancient, mysterious and deep that draws us in and down.

Great white racist?

But before we get to the interspecies showdown, the stage must be set for the drama about to unfold. Some friendly local surfer boys explain to Nancy the hidden dangers of the bucolic setting. There are stinging coral, jellyfish, and a bit of the rock that juts out above the low tide line. The film sets out its parameters with clinical precision, and every one of these things will have a role to play. The joy comes from how and from which angle they enter the story. Especially as we know the lovely Nancy is not about to bite it on a big rock. She is simply too pretty. Everyone else is fair game, however.

As a few critics have noted, several folks who are less than lily white get eaten, so maybe this is a racist great white! Wouldn't be the first, I hear you say. Racial politics of the shark aside, the only person we are allowed to spend much time with is Nancy and a nameless seagull with a broken wing. The surfer boys, a helpful little kid, and a drunk guy on the beach don't even get names. They are just background colour, occasionally of the most carmine variety. This has the effect of narrowing the struggle into familiar territory: think Old Man and the Sea, or what we used to describe in Grade 4 as big, white and dragging along the sea floor: Moby's dick. (Pause for laughter).

But The Shallows repurposes this struggle, removing the macho posturing that took up large stretches of these earlier works. This is especially explicit when you think about The Shallows next to the big daddy of shark movies, Jaws. As you may recall, some of that film's very best scenes -- well, actually the very best scene in the entire film -- revolves around a pissing contest between the would-be shark hunters Quint, Brody, and Hooper, comparing scars and other badges of sizable masculinity. But of course, the biggest cock on the block is old tubular Bruce, a giant phallus full of teeth, eager to eat the other males whole and go back for more.

But in The Shallows the lady is a shark, and the shark is a lady. This is a female versus female contest -- a far cry from old Papa Hemingway and the long struggle to maintain masculine relevance. In this new battle between mammal and fish, both combatants have beautiful teeth; both are long and sleek and possessed of a powerful instinct for survival. How can you possibly choose which to identify with? Both are divas; both are seeking to eclipse the other by biting each other's head off, and not in a figurative way. The action really gets rolling with a rotting whale carcass and Nancy's last attempt to hang ten. Finally, the moment has come for these two dueling females to meet. Sharky fires the first shot and takes a bite of out of Nancy. But the human is not without resources. Young Nancy has a thorough knowledge of anatomy, and a trusty earring that doubles as a suturing needle. This is a film that spares you few gory details. If the sight of blood makes you greenish, best go to Finding Dory, baby doll.

Wounded and bleeding, the young woman is marooned on a bit of rock that will be submerged at high tide. The clock is running, the shark is circling, and the thin line between being alive and being food is getting ever thinner. The elemental endurance of the film's second act is kept lively by the introduction of a few lighter touches. Cue the entrance of that cute seagull, which manages to steal the show with only the occasional caw and cock of its downy white head.

Beautiful beasts

So, is there much more here than a battle for survival? Not really. The idea that a brush with death makes life worth living or some such trifle slides by without much depth of investigation. Certainly the film doesn't have the heft of something like Jaws, which as you will recall was based on a pretty sizable pulp novel. But as least The Shallows has the good grace to treat its subject with some measure of dignity. This shark is a lady, after all. She deserves better than Sharknados.

By the end of The Shallows, it becomes clear that the Nancys of this world will go on, but the beautiful beast without a name is fated to stay an enigma. She is the real grande dame here, a stunning marvel of engineering, as supreme and elegant as a woman like Jessye Norman. Operatic in scale, shall we say. I was much more interested in this mysterious creature than the dull old humans. What is her story? We may never know.

In this aspect, one cannot help but recall with some measure of nostalgia some of the more graceful moments in Jaws. Everyone recalls the dolly zoom shot of Brody realizing too late that the beast is real and the beast is here. Or, even better, the achingly lovely scene in which Quint remembers his time aboard the doomed USS Indianapolis. My favourite scene slides by in little more than a few seconds, when the great white makes its way into the protected pond where the kids are practicing their sailing. Brody's youngest son is sitting on a stretch of sand, puddling about with a bucket and shovel, singing a little tuneless song to himself, while not more than four feet away a monster glides silently by. It is a thing of such terrible beauty, one could die.

No such magnificence exists in The Shallows; it contents itself with good pulpy stuff, which is fine. It is serviceable summer entertainment and sometimes that's all you need. But there is still some part of you that longs for greater mystery. There is a reason that people return to Jaws, time and again. Despite the sheer poundage of interpretation, celebration, and repeated (nay incessant) viewings, there is still something that remains elusive. A magical thing that slips out of your grasp and swims away, leaving you forever yearning for some deeper understanding. Not of death, that stuff is quite clear, but fate. Why does this person get eaten and not that one? Where is the strange invisible trajectory that separates the two drawn? And by whom?  [Tyee]

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