Sharks, Stories, and The Shallows

 

Today, I’d like to talk to you about movies and sharks – no, not movies about sharks, necessarily, but movies that are sharks.

Per the fossil record, sharks have been alive for more than 400 million years. The skeletons of extinct megalodons are nearly the same of skeletons of great whites. Evolution, it seems, stopped being necessary for them. They were already perfect. Every single inch of a shark’s body exists for the sole purpose of killing prey, from their sleek, hydrodynamic forms to their jagged, constantly replaced teeth.

It’s no surprise that sharks terrify us. Even though (as Peter Benchley has spent much of his life saying) sharks rarely attack humans in the wild, we imagine few worse fates than meeting a shark face to face. Their cold, unfeeling eyes peer into us and say – Oh, you silly human. You think you rule this world. But we’ve been here long before you and will remain long after you perish. Jesus Christ only gets two days. Sharks get a whole week.

Shark movies have become a genre unto themselves, with Jaws the great-grandfather and Jaws: The Revenge the uncle that no one else talks about. The newest entry to this family is The Shallows. When trailers first came out, critics already began writing the movie off: Blake Lively wasn’t a good enough actress. The only thing the director had done worthwhile was stab Paris Hilton through the head in House of Wax. And how can you make an hour and a half of woman vs. shark?

The answer, as director Jaume Collet-Serra and writer Anthony Jaswinski show, is with great gusto. The Shallows takes place almost entirely at one beach. The story arc consists of little over twenty four hours’ time. And for most of the film, Lively’s the only human present, alongside a scene-stealing seagull and of course, a goddamn terrifying shark.

(but seriously someone give this bird an Oscar)

Some might think that the minimalist nature of the film would make it less interesting. They’d point to say, L.A. Confidential, or Memento – great films indeed, but ones with twists on twists on twists. The Shallows functions exactly like the shark it portrays – focused, lean, and utterly savage. No unnecessary subplots, flashbacks, or cutaways.

The principle of minimalism exists outside of film, of course. Minimal composers like Steve Reich and Terry Riley created masterpieces with less than a page of compositional material. Ernest Hemingway wrote per his own “Iceberg Theory”, that only one tenth of what is meant should be written. And minimalism in product design has infected every piece of technology made since Steve Jobs put on his turtleneck.

Film has flirted with full minimalism, of course. Andy Warhol shot Empire – eight straight hours of the Empire State Building, in glorious slow motion. And one of my favorite films, My Dinner with Andre, consists entirely of two friends having a conversation over dinner. But as great as the film is, it’s still not a story.

Stories, like sharks, have survived for eons. And they’ve streamlined themselves into a certain form, one that’s best suited to their task. Some call it the monomyth, some the three acts – whatever it is, you know it implicitly. They change – different hats, different names, but always the same shape. It’s a shape we like to keep telling ourselves because we like to hear that we can change, that we can do incredible things.

The Shallows tells a story that feels familiar, but it tells it so well that you’d hardly notice. In fact, another great film of 2016, Hush (available on Netflix!) tells the same story. A woman gets stranded alone while being stalked by a relentless killing machine and must find a way to fight back using nothing but her wits and determination. Both do so with much creativity. It’s a thrill to see them use what little equipment they have to survive, whether Hush’s smoke alarm or The Shallows’ surf gear. While Hush is a great film, The Shallows wins out by having the more impressive setting and by having one of the most intense climaxes of any film I’ve seen.

People complain that in our modern, Marvel movie day, everything is either a low-budget indie film or a hundred-million-dollar blockbuster. And that’s a valid criticism – because neither of those are sharks. Indie films usually skimp on story at the expense of character and style. And blockbusters don’t just tell one story anymore – they’re glorified television shows, telling inconsequential narratives to get you interested in the next entry in the franchise. We shouldn’t worry too much about them though. For someday they shall pass and the sharks will remain, telling simple, powerful stories of people doing great things.

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