The Wasted Potential of The Shallows

The Shallows is a 2016 film about a rebellious young woman battling a race against time to escape from a killer shark. To this day, The Shallows is the best “shark movie” next to Jaws. Unfortunately, this isn’t a fair comparison considering the films it stands next to. Surprisingly, it actually has a lot of strengths in the second and third act of the film. So, what exactly went wrong?

Why even talk about this movie in the first place? No one remembers this movie right? Well, being a worshipper of movies like Castaway and Life of Pi, as in, movies that thrive with very few characters in an isolated environment, you can imagine how excited I was for this movie. I really, REALLY wanted this movie to be good enough to be in my top ten. Jaume Collet-Serra, the Director of The Shallows clearly has talent. This film actually takes a few pointers from Castaway and utilizes visual storytelling very well. However, there are a few times where it falls flat on its face. I was incredibly disappointed because The Shallows utilizes visual storytelling extremely well, but laziness is its biggest flaw.


Exposition

The first problem we see in The Shallows is laziness. When presenting the audience with information generally at least in my opinion, there are two options. Use objects and color that can work in conjunction with the actor’s performance (visual storytelling), or use dialogue. There is a right and a wrong way to use both. For example, we learn in the exposition that Nancy is a medical student that has been ignoring her true calling to pursue her own endeavors, and ends up pushing her family and friends away in the process. That’s all fine and dandy, but the way it’s presented is aggravating.

To present this information, she straight-up tells us that she’s a med student. Carlos her taxi driver asks her if she went to school because the movie needed him to. Granted this question isn’t that uncommon in small talk, but regardless it feels rushed and lazy. As a filmmaker, you have to understand that your audience can connect the dots and fill in the gaps. You don’t need to explain everything to them.

Another example of this recurring problem presents itself once Nancy makes it onto the beach. She gets a phone call from her sister. After they exchange a few words her dad picks up the phone. Almost immediately he starts rambling about her dead mother explaining how she wouldn’t approve of this behavior. He just tells her “that’s what you do, you help people”, and she says “not everyone can be helped”. This movie shoves exposition down your throat in the first 15 minutes. Similar mistakes are made down the line, but the point remains the same. If you want to present the audience with information, treating them like babies and expecting them to believe everything your characters say and at the same time expect them to retain emotional impact is insulting. Give us proof. I want to watch a movie, not read a book.


The Fix


Visual Introduction

The best way to fix the character building in the exposition is to use a visual introduction. By using visual method in a character introduction, you explain who the character is. Throw a problem at them and show how the character responds. This way, the audience can take interest in this character as they face future problems throughout the story. Besides, how are we supposed to feel connected to a character and her choices if we don’t even know who she is? (Filmento).

How do we fix this using this information? Well, we know that Nancy is slowly pushing herself into loneliness because she’s rejecting her calling of being a mother hen in favor of some alone time. Whatever it is, it must be something personal, because its more relatable and more impact-full when involving family. I don’t know about you, but I can name more than a few times when I rejected plans with a family member or a friend for myself and regretted it. We have all experienced times where we chose something else aside from family, for perhaps a multitude of reasons. When you make something personal, it becomes relatable.

In the beginning of the film, Nancy ends up going by herself because Chloe is taking care of her hangover. To better flesh out her character arc, Nancy should go by herself on her own accord. In the next scene her sister tries to ask if she can come with, Nancy refuses, claiming its something personal that she wants to do alone. This example explains to the audience that Nancy is pushing everyone away from her because she wants to be alone. No more forced and cringy exposition, no more problem. I know that this example seems pretty shallow, but this is the first thing the audience see’s. Remember, exposition doesn’t have to be clumped into a single scene. We are going to present more information to the audience later, so there’s no need to force exposition down their throat. Something like a flashback would break the pacing of the film.


Personal = Relatable

So, we know now that the exposition is the number 1 problem that’s holding the film back. The unfixed version of the film presents the scenes way too heavy handed. When you present information to the audience, it needs to feel natural and organic. Otherwise it destroys the pacing and ruins audience immersion. In my opinion, her past as a med student should be presented later in the film. I personally believe it would function better as a twist. Nancy’s phone call with her father and sister also needs to be significantly altered.

We need to flesh out this information of Nancy’s personality with another conflict. We could have Chloe trying to reach out and explain that ever since she took up surfing she’s been distant. Then, Nancy reacts defensively and they get in a fight over the phone. When it comes to addressing their mother’s death, the dad’s lackluster monologue isn’t going to cut it. It needs to be more personal.

The death of a family member in the exposition is a little tricky to get right. In this case, I don’t think it should be represented visually as in a picture for example. Its just not enough. Chloe should explain to her during the fight that she only has one sister and that Nancy is being selfish for how she’s acting. They both had the same mother and Nancy and Chloe could have helped each other as sisters but Nancy rejected her. This now heartbreaking scene adds more layers to Nancy’s background. Not only does this version have more layers, but its also natural and organic speech that you someone in the same context might actually say.

This also communicates to the audience that Nancy took up surfing as a coping mechanism, and that she’s internalizing the pain instead of opening up. Everyone has experience of isolating themselves from their problems. This is a much better option than dad’s monologue because its relatable. If your character has been through something that the audience has been through and can empathize with, they are much more inclined to get invested through that character and root for them making the impact of her actions that much more powerful.

As for revealing her identity as a med student, there’s a scene later in the film that I feel would be perfect. After she gets stuck on the little island when the tide lowers she notices a man passed out drunk on the beach. In an unfortunate turn of events, instead of helping her, he takes her belongings and ends up getting killed by the shark anyway once he tries to retrieve her surfboard.

Once he goes through her bag, in our version, he goes through her wallet and see’s a student ID. Not only does this communicate that she left her calling behind, but it also communicates that the only way for her to get out of her predicament is to face her loneliness head on. If she tried to swim to safety, she’d be killed by the very thing that haunts her. She can’t run away anymore.

In my opinion these changes are not only natural and organic, but they are also more impact-full. Her past as a med student is now a twist and adds a whole new layer to her backstory, making it more relatable. On-top of this, but the scene where she heals the Seagull’s dislocated wing becomes an even more satisfying arc for her character, incentivizing the audience even further to root for her.


The Climax

In the climax of the film, Nancy records her final thoughts on a Go-Pro from one of the shark’s victims. In the vanilla version, they take the lazy option and have her say “I finally got that alone time, its overrated”. This is just another example of cutting corners and taking the easy route.

There’s a huge island that Nancy refers to in the beginning that, in her words, looks like a pregnant woman. We can use this island in our new climax scene. Instead, When she goes through her monologue she finally explodes in a rant of tears and sadness. We could then have the Sun shine a little too bright in her eyes, and she looks over at the island looking like the pregnant woman, signifying not only her rebirth into a healthier lifestyle, but that her mother was watching all along. She finally realizes that she shouldn’t reject her calling of being a mother hen and follow in her mother’s footsteps.

Before we wrap up I do have a few things to say about the film’s positive qualities.


Pros

The visual storytelling in the second and third act was amazing. There was a lot of small details that really made a difference for me. For example, when she meets up with the other surfers, she stays a long distance away instead of swimming over to them. When she’s confronted with the drunk man on the beach, she sees for herself what loneliness can offer. This man is also going through the same troubles. For him, his coping mechanism is alcohol and no one wants to spend time with him because he’s such an unbearable drunk all the time. When he tries to gather her surfboard, the shark tears him in half and the camera cuts to Nancy’s eyes as we see her see for herself what happens when you don’t save yourself from the pit of loneliness.

Another example of one of the scenes I liked is when she fixes the seagull’s wing. This whole time, she has someone right next to her that’s just as damaged as she is, and she neglects the opportunity. When she finally comes to her senses, she’s cowering under a crushed surfboard looking out to the seagull. She see’s that she’s not alone and that others are going through the same problems she is. Now she finally takes a step towards her rehabilitation and uses her medical knowledge to help someone who’s just as helpless as she is. I loved that they chose a seagull instead of a person because not only is it a throwback to Wilson from Castaway, but its much more impact-full because the seagull couldn’t even save himself if he tried. with a broken wing, he can’t fly away, and birds aren’t exactly the best swimmers.


Conclusion

In my opinion, these changes work because it makes the character more relatable and it makes all of the problems the character faces more personal. With these changes we see Nancy beaten to a pulp until she finally explodes and admits to her wrongdoings in the climax. The shark represents loneliness itself, offering no compassion and no love. Loneliness isn’t just a problem, its a killer. By driving away everyone out of her life she lead herself to the shark, and she’s now at his mercy. Now that my friends, is truly terrifying.

Author: Noah Veremis


Works Cited

  1. “How One Movie Became Bullied by the Internet | Anatomy Of A Failure”. YouTube, Nov 8, 2019.

Published by Noah Veremis

I love movies.

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