The plot of 2016 movie The Shallows is pretty easy and quick to sum up: it’s Blake Lively versus a shark. This excellent, taut thriller sees her surfer, Nancy, get attacked and injured by a great white – then try to outwit the deadly predator and escape to shore from a rock just 200 yards out. But scratch (or perhaps bite) beneath the surface and there’s a lot more going on, with a subtext exploring Nancy’s fear of death and anxiety about becoming a doctor. Let’s dive deeper.
In a film with very little at all in the way of superfluous side plots, we are introduced pretty much straight away to Nancy as she finds her way to a ‘secret beach’ in Mexico that her mother visited when she was pregnant with her. Soon after it’s revealed her mum recently died from cancer, leading Nancy to lose faith in her studies at medical school. In a video chat with her dad she tells him “not everyone can be helped, you know that.” He replies that her mother would never quit because she was a fighter, foreshadowing the fight for survival that awaits Nancy too. The ensuing shark attack forces her to re-evaluate her paralysing fear of losing other people to death and the importance of her talents in the field of medicine.
Right after Nancy is initially bitten, causing a deep gash in her left thigh, she managed to climb to temporary safety on a whale carcass. Here, she wastes no time in using the ankle leash from her surfboard as a makeshift tourniquet to stifle the bleeding. This immediate, instinctive bit of quick-thinking saves her own life – at least for now – where other, less qualified people may just succumb to the blood loss.
Next, on the relative safety of the rock, she stitches up her leg wound using her earrings which, by the way, is badass. To get herself through the pain she again falls back on her medical training, talking herself through it out loud as if to a patient: “you’re not gonna feel a thing, ma’am.” Needless to say, she does, but her resilience and determination are exhibited in full force.
In another key scene, Nancy helps heal a seagull’s broken wing. It (she names the bird Stephen Seagull…) was also hurt in the shark attack, and serves as her only companion during her time stuck out on that rock. Again, she talks her patient through the procedure before snapping its dislocated wing back into place. While the first two examples of her medical expertise serve the plot of her survival, this one is more character focused. The gull isn’t integral to the plot, but its need for help is vital in Nancy rediscovering her passion of caring for others which she was in danger of losing following the death of her mother. In a straightforward, gritty survival movie even this element could be deemed extraneous, but for writer Anthony Jaswinski and director Jaume Collet-Sera, it’s significant in crafting a more substantial arc for their protagonist.
By the time Nancy makes a video message for her dad and little sister, on the GoPro of another surfer killed by the shark, she has gathered the courage to say she is going to fight, “just like she taught us”. Then comes the climactic showdown with the great white itself: death incarnate, that Nancy must face down and defeat. She has witnessed the beast killing three men that very day – but by now, unlike at the start of her travels when she felt the urge to run from her fears, she is ready to take them on. In The Shallows‘ final act, she shoots the shark with a flare gun and sets fire to it in a trail of whale oil; now that’s facing your problems head on.
In the film’s epilogue, after she does make it back to the safety of the beach, we catch up with Nancy a year on. She’s finally prepared to teach her younger sister to surf, after an earlier inference that she was too protective and worried about safety to do so before. Her traumatic experience has taught her to embrace and value living over simply existing. Having gotten over her anxieties, she is now qualified as a doctor. Fixing that little seagull’s wing made a big difference. Nancy has also reconnected with her mother, in spirit, after finding the strength to fight for survival, just like she had right until the end.
So while The Shallows can be enjoyed as a thrilling ‘human versus force of nature’ adventure, it can also be read as a celebration of the human spirit overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles. The shark represents death, one of mankind’s enduring and biggest fears; the rock Nancy is stranded on can be seen as hope, when just a little can be enough; the seagull symbolises those in need, and how we’re all able to do something to make other peoples’ lives better; and the beach, so near yet so far for Nancy, is the dreams and aspirations which we all have to make a swim for sometime. Yep, The Shallows is a brilliant shark movie, but it’s not just about a shark.