The Shallows, an unassuming summer hit, has almost everything you’d want in a summer action movie: a simple, almost-corny and uncomplicated storyline; picturesque locations; a short and crisp run-time; a tan, lithe, perpetually-basking-in-a-golden-halo goddess in the form of Blake Lively; a terrifying, we-need-Chief-Brody-to-hunt-it-down shark; and a companion in the form of a seagull, fondly named Steven Seagull. You can’t possibly go wrong with this set up, and sure enough, The Shallows delivers a competent, popcorn adventure thriller.
Comparisons to Jaws and Sharknado, two ends of the shark attack movie spectrum, are futile because The Shallows manages to carve a niche all its own. In the process, it also reminds us once again, how enjoyable and easily consumable “survival” movies are!
A lovely, interesting setting; an engaging protagonist or two that we root for; a sudden game-changing disaster; and then the entire movie spent fighting the odds and defying death: this classic motif has been around for ages.
Over the years, the success of movies (The Edge, Cast Away), real life events turned into books that were made into movies (Alive,Into the Wild), comics turned to movies (I Am Legend), and even TV shows (Lost) have proven the lure of the “survival” genre and its incredible appeal for audiences. But what exactly makes this genre so appealing?
The action in survival movies is often very unlike (read: much slower than) a big-budget purely action thriller: compare Gravity (Sandra Bullock’s near-solo “astronaut stranded in space” survival movie) to The Avengers (Marvel’s ensemble superhero action blockbuster). What then, draws us to these movies?
In his book, Disaster Movies: The Cinema of Catastrophe, Stephen Keane suggests that films often reflect the times in which we live, and disaster/survival movies are borne out of times of crisis. “Whether human or environmental, alien or accidental, disaster movies provide for solutions in the form of a representative group of characters making their way towards survival.” What is it about seeing these characters in the jaws of death (literally, in the case of The Shallows) that makes such an impact on viewers?
The appeal of disaster/survival movies, according to Keane, is following these characters through perilous situations, where the question “who will survive” is central to the basic narrative pleasure of the movies. And he’s right: films are very obviously a reflection of our times, and survival movies heighten the suspense of real life by putting characters we begin to like (who are often played by actors we already like) in dangerous situations they have to manoeuvre through, using the few tools available to them or sometimes using just their wit. To see which character survives (or not) is one of the key cinematic gratifications afforded to us viewers.
In 1939, Agatha Christie wrote and published And Then There Were None, a mystery survival novel about a group of ten people who have all committed crimes (leading to the deaths of other human beings) and escaped justice, and who are lured into coming to an island for different reasons. In the terribly cold winter weather, they are the only people on the island, unable to escape due to the distance from the mainland; gradually, all ten are killed in turn. The novel was originally published as Ten Little Niggers, named after the old racist nursery rhyme, thought to be about “dark-skinned boys who are always children, never learning from experience.” In a world long before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the idea of a “survival” book about punishment by death and based on that particular rhyme, was reflective of the times. In 1945, the novel was adapted into a movie of the same name.
Wartime influence was obvious in the ‘40s and ‘50s, which saw a string of lost-at-sea survival movies (Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece Lifeboat, and Abandon Ship!). Releasing smack in the middle of WWII, Hitchcock intended Lifeboat to be the kind of movie that would show the Allies how to stop bickering amongst themselves and unite in order to win the war.
Jump to the 2000s, with the subsequent vampire-zombie obsession, and we have a range of zombie-apocalypse survival movies (28 Days Later, 28 Weeks Later, I Am Legend and Zombieland). In a post-9/11 world filled with a fear of everything (nuclear war, viruses, doomsday predictions), survival movies of the last decade truly reflected the state of the world we lived in. In the last couple of years, fuelled by the rivalry between Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, and powered by the incredible steps we’ve taken towards potentially colonising Mars, survival movies have evolved to reflect the non-alien space threat (Gravity, The Martian). Or the extremely timely artificial intelligence threat (would humans survive a humanoid attack like in Ex Machina?).
Side note: last year, Mad Max: Fury Road went a step ahead of our times and showed us a realistic portrayal of a potential water-deprived post-apocalyptic world in which the survival of our species does not mean defeating the enemy; it means a larger humanistic change in our attitude towards the environment, power, control, wealth and corruption.
Reflection of our times: check. Augmented reality: check. Suspense to potential survival: check. No wonder survival movies are such a draw!
Another reason these movies suck us in is because, very often, they provide us with solutions to the problems, as Keane pointed out. We revel in Tom Hanks’ character’s struggle for survival in Cast Away: going from being a pudgy FedEx manager to a gaunt and bearded man with a self-made fishing spear resulted in a best actor Academy Award nomination for Hanks; but more importantly, it allowed viewers to empathsze with him even more. We cried when he lost “Wilson” and we rooted for his escape and survival on the raft he built for himself.
When Pi Patel (Life of Pi), while stranded at sea, fashions a tethered raft to maintain a distance from Richard Parker the tiger, and later uses the survival manual on the lifeboat to meticulously “train” the tiger, we learn something new about being lost-at-sea.
Mark Watney’s (The Martian) nerdy botanist survival strategies when he realises he may have to be alone on Mars for at least four years, involve creating a farm with Martian soil fertilised with human waste, water produced by extracting hydrogen from leftover rocket fuel, and potatoes that were saved for a Thanksgiving meal; they may not actually be feasible (in the eventual event of humans landing on Mars). But watching the movie, seeing him figure out a solution and sciencing the shit out of his dilemma, is rewarding and gratifying in a way few other types of movies are.
It’s a “hell, yeah!” moment that validates human grit, determination and effort.
Which is why, in The Shallows, when Blake Lively’s character Nancy (who’s a medical student) tears the arm of her surf suit to create a tourniquet for her shark-wounded leg, or when she uses a sharp piece of jewellery to suture a wound, we love it. We see a little bit of ourselves in these characters. We live vicariously through them. For a little while, through their journey towards survival, we take on the roles of a FedEx employee, an animal-loving kid, a biologist, and an aspiring doctor, stranded respectively on an uninhabited island in the South Pacific, in the middle of the ocean, on Mars, and on a rock a few hundred meters off the Mexican coast.
And well, isn’t that what movies are all about?