This weekend, I caught up on a movie I had been meaning to see because it’s about a shark, was directed by Jaume Collet-Serra (who directed one of my favorite trashy movies of the 21st century, Orphan), is certified “fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes, and came recommended by people whose opinions I trust. A scrappy little B-movie that, after just two weekends in theaters, has already grossed about $20 million more than its $17 million budget, The Shallows is a single-setting thriller along the lines of 127 Hours, The Ruins, Frozen (the ski-lift one, not the Disney one whose songs continue to fill our ears and haunt our lives), and Buried (which starred Ryan Reynolds, the husband of Shallows star Blake Lively). More than anything, though, The Shallows is a giant crock of shit.
Lively plays Nancy, a med school dropout who’s surfing alone in Mexico when she’s bitten on the leg by a great white shark. She finds refuge on a floating dead whale the shark has been feeding on, then some rocks, then a buoy. Over 24 hours pass as she attempts to make it back to shore with the shark sniffing out her blood every time she submerges her leg into the water. Over the course of her aquatic imprisonment, she watches several people succumb to the shark after entering the water. The shark seems to get angrier and angrier as time passes, and the climax finds it throwing itself onto the buoy so as to manually plunge Nancy into the water. “Now, I’m really pissed,” you can almost hear the shark say through its gritted, three-inch serrated teeth.
The idea that a shark attack would be terrifying and pose some logistical difficulties for a survivor is reasonable. The idea that a shark is a vengeful killing machine patrolling one beach for human prey is recklessly farfetched. This image of the great white as a man-eating monster is one of those lies that our culture loves, like humans only use 10 percent of their brains, torture always works, and the Robertsons of Duck Dynasty fame are people whose opinions are worth listening to. Art is lies and fiction is bald-faced lies, but not all of these lies are harmless. Some are, in fact, dangerous to our species and the planet.
“The shark in an updated Jaws could not be the villain; it would have to be written as the victim, for, worldwide, sharks are much more the oppressed than the oppressors,” wrote Jaws author Peter Benchley in 1995. Benchley’s book, and Steven Spielberg’s subsequent blockbuster film adaptation of it, famously shaped the public conception of the great white to the extent that it affected shark populations globally via what is known as the “Jaws effect.” Convinced that pulling these mindless killers from the water would be good for humans, fishermen hunted giant sharks, predators on whom our food chain (as we know it) depends, with abandon. Benchley spent over the last 10 years of his life, which ended in 2006, devoted to shark conservation, essentially atoning for his misrepresentation of great whites.
“I was watching Shark Week, almost two years ago, and everything was about Sharknado and cartoon sharks and sharks getting punched in the face. I was asking myself, ‘When did the shark not become scary anymore? When did this beautiful, primal weapon of nature become this kind of laugh-in joke?,’” is how The Shallows screenwriter Anthony Jaswinski described his inspiration in a recent interview. Jaswinski’s agenda to return the great white to its status as America’s top monster, feared as mindlessly as it itself is accused of being, is ridiculous. When did the shark not become scary anymore? When we actually put time and money toward studying it, like anything, you ignorant landlubber.
Granted, Jaws hurt shark populations, but it also may have helped them. As Robert Hueter of the Center for Shark Research at the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Florida, told National Geographic in 2005: “On the one hand, the movie did damage to sharks, because people saw them as monsters...But for scientists, the whole Jaws thing started working in our favor, because of the over-exaggerated public interest in these animals.” That interest yielded funding for shark research, and from there we learned just how wrong about great whites we were. It was only in the ‘80s that we started to get any sense of great whites’ population and tastes. (Apparently said taste is not for human flesh. Biologists theorize that when sharks bite humans, they are exploring, mistaking humans for seals, or want the human to leave the area so as not to be a source of competition for food.) In its fictive way, Jaws was as mixed a blessing for sharks as SeaWorld was for killer whales, which the general public knew very little about before the park started putting them in tanks. It was through orca captivity that people were able to understand how damaging captivity is to orcas.
There is still so much that we don’t know about great whites (humans have never seen them mating or given birth). We don’t even have a firm grip on their population and what its implications are. From an article on great whites in the most recent National Geographic:
Are great whites thriving or dwindling? The world has about 4,000 tigers and 25,000 African lions. Using the lowest estimates, global great white numbers resemble the estimate for tigers, an endangered species. Using the highest estimate, the population is closer to that of the lions, which are classified as vulnerable. Several experts see them heading toward extinction; others see a positive trend. Some say rising seal populations are a sign that great whites are nearly gone, while others say more seals mean more sharks. Aaron MacNeil, an Australian statistician who crunches shark data, says the appearance of sharks around Cape Cod and the increased activity in the Southern Hemisphere suggest the latter. “I haven’t seen any evidence in the last decade that white sharks are declining,” says MacNeil. “Yes, there is a historical depletion of white sharks. But the story is not that they are going extinct. The story is that they are probably increasing very, very slowly.”
We know enough about them, however, to know that the behavior depicted in The Shallows is inaccurate. The shark’s tenacity took me out of a movie that relies on instilling a vicarious sense of tension between its protagonist and its audience. The Shallows wants you to feel what Lively’s character feels. It implores your teeth to chatter along with hers. It needs you to put yourself in that situation to move you when everything eventually works out for its crudely sketched protagonist, whose problems are otherwise run-of-the-mill and whose personality leaves much to be desired (“Sorry—I’m American!” Nancy chirps when the man driving her to the secret beach she’s to be hunted on tells her to take in the scenery instead of remaining glued to her phone). Midway through my viewing of The Shallows, when it became clear that the only way Nancy was going to survive was by killing the shark, I started rooting for the shark.
The great white is an endangered or at least vulnerable apex predator, while the world depends on Blake Lively to do literally nothing but take up space while being blonde. We already have an excess of those kind of people on this planet, in the millions. If I have to choose a side, I cannot help but wonder: What’s one less Blake Lively?
How could anyone with any sense of marine biology (or sense, period) become absorbed by The Shallows’s tainted water? Perhaps it could be enjoyed at a remove for the old-fashioned monster movie that it is. Perhaps 41 years after the movie Jaws and the knowledge it eventually inspired, we see it for the fairy tale that it is and enjoy it responsibly. Some anecdotal reporting suggests that beachgoers now respond to great white presence more with awe than fear. Given what we know now about great whites’ lack of interest in the taste of human flesh, it’s safe to say that if a shark bit you and then came back to consume you whole, you’d be somehow superlative in flavor. In the unlikely event that happened, you could take being eaten by a shark as a compliment. Blake Lively should be so lucky. We all should be.