Wednesday, December 07, 2016

To the Depths, with Sharks and Everything

The Shallows presents perhaps some of the greatest bang for your buck in recent memory. It is both a loving, meticulously constructed ode to Blake Lively's ass as well as a surprisingly well-executed woman versus nature thriller. On both levels, it succeeds gloriously, and so you essentially get two films for the price of one.

For those of you out there who were on the fence over whether or not Blake Lively was attractive, your fears can finally be put to rest. Nearly the entire first third of the film painstakingly documents in fantastic, high-def detail, every curve that Lively can possibly muster. Director Jaume Collet-Serra displays an impressive level of dedication to capturing on film every sun-soaked inch of Blake Lively's body, including a few inches you didn't even know existed. It's the kind of dedication to one's subject matter that most documentary film makers would kill to achieve. In all fairness, if I had a body like Blake Lively's, I too would want it preserved for posterity and chronicled for inclusion in the historical record. Purely in the service of scientific and academic discourse, of course.

As much time as The Shallows dedicates to showcasing Blake Lively's ass, I wouldn't categorize that aspect of the film as gratuitous. Of course, I might be biased by the fact that I am a heterosexual man who is, at the moment of writing this, out of the known striking distance of her current husband, Ryan "Deadpool" Reynolds. (Incidentally, after seeing Reynolds in Deadpool, it is entirely within the realm of possibility that I would have enjoyed the film just as much (if not more so) had he been cast as the lead in The Shallows and had his ass so lovingly documented in service of the film.)

The Shallows follows Nancy (Blake Lively) as she tracks down a secluded stretch of beach that her mom surfed in her youth. This particular pilgrimage is made partially to emotionally connect with her mother, who has very recently passed away, and partially to reevaluate her life trajectory as she contemplates dropping out of med school.

The painstaking visual chronicling of Blake Lively's body in The Shallows was mirrored by similarly stunning shots of the isolated Mexican beach and Blue Crush-esque surfing antics executed by Lively's Nancy and a few other random dudes who eventually become fodder for an unusually aggressive CG great white shark that shows up later  as the proverbial fly in the tropical ointment. It becomes clear that the first part of the film is firmly establishing the idyllic nature of the setting. Nancy is seeking a measure of tranquility, which she finds in a (seemingly) peaceful swath of nature (virtually) untouched by civilization.

The idyllic order established in The Shallows is subverted with the quite literal intrusion of death in the form of a CG shark. Of the few people Nancy encounters on her pilgrimage is a group of locals who quickly become fodder for said shark. (Do CG sharks dream of electric sheep?) This is not only a physical mirror of the psychological conflict that Nancy is undergoing as she tries to process the death of her mother, but also a reversal of the pastoral ideal that portrays nature as pure and serene. It seemed that Nancy had travelled to Mexico for a peaceful re-evaluation of her life in the wake of a personal tragedy. But she had also travelled there as an escape. She left her family. Her country. Her career. In a very real sense, she was trying to escape the hard reality of her mother’s death.

I would totally kill my travel agent... if that
profession hadn't been decimated by the
advent of the Internet.
She learns the hard way, though, that you can’t outrun death. Beneath the thin veneer of serenity there rages an eternal struggle between life and the inevitability of annihilation. Nancy most likely needed time to cope with the loss of a loved one, but she was also in the process of retreating from life. Much like Blake Lively’s bikini, Nancy’s encounter with death left little to the imagination and nowhere to hide. Even in that secluded Mexican beach, an island of peace in a sea of chaos, a place where both Nancy and her mother were able to find a connection to Life in all her beauty and majesty, death persists, and Nancy discovers that any safe haven she may find is actually a mirage.

As Nancy finds herself wounded and trapped on a rock within striking distance of the shore, she is forced to confront the real reason she travelled all that way to that beach in the middle of nowhere. It wasn’t just to wrestle with the vagaries of mortality but also to retreat from the effort of living. She’s faced with the same nihilistic philosophical abyss that we all find ourselves facing at one time or another: If it all eventually ends some day, then what’s the fucking point? I’m not sure there’s a good answer to that question. Or at least, not a final one. Life for any sapient being is, at its bare minimum, reconceptualizing and reworking an answer to that question. And that answer can range from a complex philosophical argument about the beauty of struggling on in the face of our inevitable oblivion and leaving some kind of mark as a legacy to those who will come after and trying to make the world an at least slightly better place than it was before you got there to just a simple, humble “Fuck you” to the universe.

However Nancy eventually formulates her answer, she decides that she’s not quite ready to cash in her chips just yet and that she indeed wants not only to live but to fucking Live. This is foreshadowed quite nicely earlier in the film when Nancy’s first attempt to escape Jaws 2.0 landed her on the rotting carcass of a whale, which is also used to explain why the shark was being so unusually aggressive as it offers a smorgasbord for the beast. The whale carcass was a literal island of death which she immediately abandons for her precarious purchase on a rock that is slowly being submerged as the tide comes in. It could just be me, but this seems like a pretty obvious metaphor for life as a whole, re: the whole beautiful struggle in the face of oblivion thing.

Nancy also gets to give a “Fuck you” to death as she manages not only to outsmart but to kill the shark that has been stalking her through most of the film (however transitory and fleeting that victory might be in the philosophical sense). It’s a theme that’s been explored many times before, but it’s so compelling because it is so universal; in the face of certain (or near-certain) defeat, we are still (or perhaps most) compelled to fight on even harder.

After Nancy's eventual rescue, she returns to her life. She is shown going surfing with her younger sister. The idyllic oceanfront setting mirrors Nancy's Mexican oasis, though this time she is embracing it fully aware of its implications. She now knows that no matter how beautiful the setting, death and chaos are likely brewing somewhere under the surface. The only way to move forward is to embrace and accept both life and death and the inevitability of each. When confronting the ocean of life, it also never hurts to have a bikini-ready body; you never know who you might run into and you always want to be ready to leave a good-looking corpse on the off-chance that things don't work out.


Needless to say, I was a little surprised how much I enjoyed The Shallows. In much the same way that a movie like 127 Hours relied on the talent and charisma of its lead James Franco, the success of The Shallows rests almost entirely on the scantily clad shoulders of Blake Lively who effortlessly bares that weight. This shouldn’t have been surprising considering her turn as Ben Affleck’s trashy ex-girlfriend in The Town, where there weren’t nearly as many gratuitous shots of her bikini-clad ass and yet she still somehow managed to turn in a great performance. There was also an appearance by one of the all-time great animal sidekicks, one Steven Seagull, the wounded seagull whose journey from wounded prey to literal free bird mirrors Nancy’s own journey in the film. He didn’t really do a whole lot, come to think of it; maybe I’m just a sucker for a good pun. The two glaring issues with the film were the CG shark and the portrayal of Nancy's medical knowledge what with using a tourniquet on her injured leg, which I believe is a bit of an outdated first aid treatment. My final verdict for The Shallows is 7.5/10 = One Blonde Head Surfing in Slow Motion on a Secluded Beach Showing Off Every Glorious Curve


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