The Deceptive Simplicity of "The Shallows"

It’s easy to dismiss movies like “The Shallows” as being simple. A girl is marooned on a rock after being attacked by a shark. Let’s admit what we’re all thinking: I could write that. But there’s deception in its simplicity. There’s more to the plot than a vengeful shark attacking and there’s more to the protagonist than a pretty girl in a tiny bikini. Dare I say it, but “The Shallows” is kind of deep, if you’re willing to look beyond the surface.

Blake Lively in "The Shallows." Photo courtesy of Columbia Pictures/Sony.

In "The Shallows," written by Anthony Jaswinski and directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, Blake Lively plays an impossibly tanned and toned surfer and medical school dropout grieving her mother who lost a vigorous battle to cancer. We know who she is and why she’s at that particular surf spot. After an overly-long surfing montage the plot gets down to business. Without giving away any more than the reviews or the marketing, the shark attacks Lively’s surfer and then continues to prey on her and her bleeding, discolored leg. The plot develops a nice rhythm as it presents problems, then solutions, then new problems for the increasingly weakened and desperate woman. (See also “All is Lost” for a great example of a movie that capitalizes on that plot rhythm.)

The shark isn’t just a shark here. The man-versus-animal stories never are. The shark represents all of the things that trap us and leave us cowering in the corner. It’s the boogeyman in the closet. It’s our fears. It’s our weaknesses. It’s the cancer that relentlessly attacked her mother. It can’t merely be survived—it must be destroyed. That symbolism helps creates an important turning point in the story where the table gets turned (or in this case, a buoy) and where the hunted becomes the hunter. "The Shallows" isn’t perfect (I could spend three more blog posts detailing its faults), but in its imperfection it reminds us that its strong female protagonist is more than just another pretty girl in a tiny bikini and a vengeful shark is more than just a vengeful shark.