Last week the fish were hilarious and adorable, if not a little forgetful. This week the fish are trying to kill people. What a one-two combination: #FindingDory opened last weekend, and #TheShallows (starring Blake Lively) the most terrifying shark movie since “Jaws,” opened this weekend (the weekend of June 24th-26th).
It’s basically a PG-13 horror film in water, but there’s more to it than that. The film also functions, symbolically, as a vivid portrayal of a person’s harrowing fight against cancer. More on that in a moment. First let’s talk about why this film is getting such high ratings (74% on RottenTomatoes currently) and why it is so well-made. It is definitely a diamond-in-the-rough gem of filmmaking that stands out on a weekend when Hollywood is force-feeding us sequels we never asked for (“Independence Day 2”), though, to be fair, I’m not against ’90s nostalgia, but Hollywood no longer makes anything original. Everything is a sequel or a brand extension.
Entertainment Value and Film Craft
At last! A live action original! A movie that’s not a sequel or a reboot or an animated film! They’re almost so rare these days in the context of mainstream box offices that I feel an urgency to rush to the theater and see it before it vanishes from marquees under the overpowering weight of sequels and animated films that now dominate the industry.
“The Shallows” is quiet and contemplative at times when most movies of the same genre would be loud, obnoxious, and jumping overboard. This adds to the sense of dread that begins to creep over the viewer as the entrance of the monster (the white shark) is delayed again and again. Visions of gaping jaws rushing at you through the water hang over your head like the sword of Damocles (or more like the sword of Giant Shark Tooth). And when the beast finally appears and pursues its prey (poor Blake Lively), you feel an urge to get out of the water and seek refuge too. It’s definitely the scariest, most effective, and somehow the most satisfying shark thriller movie since “Jaws.”
The satisfying part, however, comes from the film’s moving subtext, which, as it turns out, has nothing to do with sharks.
Redemption Storylines, Worldviews, Edifying Themes: Why ‘The Shallows’ is Symbolic of Fighting Cancer
Good movies have a completely different theme/storyline running beneath the symbolic layers of the film in the subtext, a theme that, though different and separate from the advertised plot, runs parallel with the obvious storyline playing out on-screen. For example, the film “Jurassic Park” is actually about a couple who overcomes their fears of being parents and decides to take the plunge into parenthood. Elements throughout the film (even some of the dinosaurs) become symbolic of the couple’s fears and victories along their journey toward accepting parenthood. The symbolic theme that runs quietly beneath the action of the film is usually established in the first 10% of the screenplay. We see this in the very first scenes of “Jurassic Park” when Grant and Ellie examine a screen showing dinosaur bones, and the screen/display looks very similar to a screen a couple sees when they’re looking at the ultrasound of their baby. This kicks off the “journey into parenthood” theme that is symbolized subtly throughout a film about dinosaurs gone wild.
Likewise, “The Shallows” is actually symbolic of a woman whose mother died of cancer and who finds out that she too has cancer, and she must decide if she will fight it to the very end or give up and surrender to the disease. The shark in the film symbolizes cancer, and Nancy’s (Blake Lively) struggles on the rock in the shallows symbolizes her arduous, painful battle with cancer.
I won’t give away any spoilers about what happens, but when you have the subtext in mind, “The Shallows” is no longer just a scary shark movie. It’s also a powerful, emotionally stirring film about fighting serious diseases with bravery and determination.
Conclusion: ‘The Shallows’ Aren’t Shallow in This Moving (But also Terrifying and Bloody) Film
“The Shallows” is a refreshing change of pace for summer movies, as stated in the intro. But it’s not just because it’s an original live action story. It’s because the film has real depth and thoughtfulness to it. Sure, you will see some mind-blowing shark attack scenes with a huge great white shark, but you will walk away from the film with a strange sense of satisfaction (just like viewers felt after seeing “Jurassic Park” for the first time). It’s because, while you thought you were just watching a movie about scary shark attacks, the movie was, all along, whispering an entirely different story into your ear.
Keep in mind, however, that even though this is PG-13, this is a horror movie, essentially. It has some very bloody, frightening, disturbing moments of carnage. Definitely do not take kids or tweens under 13, and be cautious about taking young teenagers. See below for the content advisory.
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Content advisory for this film…
Sexual Content/Nudity/Themes of Sexuality or Sexual Identity: When Nancy (Blake Lively) removes her outer layers of clothes, the camera lingers on her bikini clad bod.
Violence/Gore/Scary Content: The fright begins when a kid discovers a Go-Pro camera washed up on the beach, and as he plays through the footage, we see a great white shark suddenly appear in the water as its jaws clamp down on the camera (and the head of the person). There’s no blood or gore in this first scene, but it’s merely a hint of things to come. The shark bites a character’s leg, and the water around the person turns red in slow motion as we see the agony on their face. Later we see up-close shots of the bloody, deep-cutting wound on the person’s leg, and we watch (very squeamishly) as the character sews the leg wound shut. (I had to turn away during a couple moments in that scene, I will confess.) A dead whale is seen floating in the water with a gaping, bloody hole in its side where the shark bit. A character wades into the water to get a surf board, and the shark attacks. Although we don’t see the shark actually biting the person, we see the gruesome result, which is the most gory part of the film. We see the character, with their last gaps, crawling on their belly out of the water onto the beach, but as the camera pans out, we see that the person is missing the lower half of their body from the waste down, and there are pieces of their cloven body behind them. A character, while surfing, is attacked by the shark, and this time we do see this shark bite the person, but there isn’t a gory after-shot of the carnage. In another scene, a character is pulled under water, and they never surface, and then a cloud of blood comes to the surface. A character shoots the shark with a flare and attempts to set the shark on fire. A character gets stung multiple times by jelly fish and cuts their feet and hands on coral.
Language: Several s-words, b-words, a-words, misuses of God’s name, and one f-word.
Alcohol/Drug/Smoking Content: A man is seen getting drunk on tequila.