We’re used to seeing anthropomorphism in the forms of smiling monkeys and adorable Labrador pups trying to sell us Cool Ranch Doritos. But animal predator movies take this idea in the opposite direction, offering monsters as unstoppable, sadistic villains, every bit as malicious and unrelenting as Michael Myers.
Of course, the film that got this particular ball rolling was Jaws. Called a “perfect eating machine” by marine biologist Hooper (memorably played by Richard Dreyfus), the shark is also more than that. Apparently determined to crush the puny humans who are hunting it, the shark undertakes a kind of cat-and-mouse game in the high seas, finally launching itself on their puny boat in order to chomp the grizzled fisherman Quint (Robert Shaw) in half. Sequels to the original offer teenagers as victims, so the sharks look less like less thoughtless eating machines than scheming serial killers.
One of these shows up in The Shallows, opening this weekend. Here Blake Lively plays Nancy, who’s recently lost her mother to cancer and dropped out of med school. She travels to a secret Mexican surfing beach in honor of her mother, who visited when she was first pregnant. Here Nancy meets a pair of natives, who find the gringa on a surfboard pretty amusing even as they spend the day with her.
Just when she’s about to take one last run at the end of a great day, Nancy is attacked by a massive great white shark. Her leg gashed, she takes refuge on a small set of rocks only visible when the tide is out. She holes up there for the night and tries to figure out a way to get back safely to shore, some 200 yards away, with the shark swimming circles around her.
As she waits and worries, the shark builds cursory and sometimes graphic tension by devouring the other two surfers, along with most of a blue whale carcass. It also takes after a swarthy drunk who steals Nancy’s phone and money from her beached backpack, tearing him to bits when the guy gets too greedy and tries to make off with her floating surfboard, too. Despite the fact that real life sharks eat infrequently at best, and generally with a minimum of effort, this monster shark decides it has it in for our comely female protagonist. And so it repeatedly chases her down at every opportunity rather than swims off to find something easier to eat.
We might at least admire that director Jaume Collet-Serra, a veteran of Liam Neeson action throwaways such as Non-Stop and Unknown, takes some care with the proceedings. Like Steven Spielberg, he keeps the shark mostly under wraps during The Shallows‘ opening act, showing it only via a smartly realized snippet delivered by a GoPro attached to the washed-ashore helmet of a previous victim.
But because the waters of this Mexican paradise are crystal clear, hiding the shark isn’t always easy to pull off. So Collet-Serra favors swooping, aerial shots of the water, placing the characters on the edge of the frame against a large swath of open ocean. At the same time, he’s able to mine a good, anxious buzz from all we don’t see in any given frame. The camera often hovers just over the surface of the water, dipping down under wave swells, which forces you to scan apprehensively through the blue-green, trying to make out any sort of threatening shadows.
The thing is, the more the shark ceases to act like an actual wild animal in favor of like a bitterly obsessive stalker, the less frightening it becomes. Once the creature turns predictable, the rest of the film falls ever too neatly in place. In fact, Nancy herself, despite her terrifying predicament, doesn’t seem too overly concerned. Tangling with the massive shark deep in the water, supposedly fighting for her life against a super-predator, she seems much less frightened than pissed off about the whole situation. It’s as if she’s watched too many of these animal predator films before, and knows more or less how it’s going to turn out at the end.