In 1974, Peter Benchley wrote a novel about man-eating shark that terrorized a Long Island resort town. In 1975, Steven Spielberg adapted it into a film, and the world fled the waters in panic. Attendance at beaches fell. Reports of shark sightings increased. Tragically, shark-fishing tournaments sprang up and the predators were killed by the thousands. There are reportedly more cattle-related deaths than shark attacks each year, but the Jaws effect persists, making life difficult for conservationists trying to convince the public that the animals should be protected. One such conservationist? Peter Benchley.
Early in the 1980s, Benchley went diving in a nature preserve called Cocos Island, off the coast of Costa Rica. Deep below the surface, he saw something that altered him forever. “The corpses of finned sharks littered the bottom of the sea. It was one of the most horrifying sights I have ever seen,” Benchley said in an interview. Fishermen had been capturing the sharks to feed the market for shark fin soup, a ‘delicacy’ especially popular in Asia. With heartbreaking cruelty, they would slash the fins off the sharks – and toss the animals back overboard while still alive. The sharks would sink helplessly towards the ocean floor, contorting in agony.
The incident had a profound impact on Benchley, leading him to learn more about the animals. Driven by a horror far more profound than Jaws had inspired in the public, he became a passionate activist for the shark cause. He continued to advocate conservation until his death in 2005. Writing in 1995, he expressed regret for his most famous novel, saying that if were to do it again, “the shark would be written as the victim, for, worldwide, sharks are much more the oppressed than the oppressors.”
Let me reassure you that you are still reading a review for The Shallows, a shark-attack film that shows zero awareness of everything I have just described. Now I don’t for a moment believe the movie was obligated to advocate conservation, nor do I hold its cheerful demonization of its shark villain against it – I just thought I would include this preachy preamble on the off chance that it would educate a reader who wasn’t aware of it.
Right then, let’s get to the lagoonful of fun that The Shallows is. Blake Lively (I can’t even remember her character’s name, so let’s just call her Blake Lively) seeks out a secluded Mexican beach for a weekend of surfing. The beach has a bittersweet personal connection for her, as we are shown through some distracting and unnecessary FaceTime/text conversations. Lively gets into the water, and things begin to move pretty quickly from there when she realizes that something is sharing the sea with her.
The rest of the film is a classic woman-vs-wild scenario, as Lively has to use every ounce of her wits to make it back to shore safely. Although the movie is absurdly unrealistic in the things it has the shark do, it creates a genuine sense of danger and earns some terrific scares. Director Jaume Collet-Sera does a good job of setting up the geography of the beach. With a deceptively restricted setting and using only a few tools, he crafts a nice little survival thriller. Clocking in at under 90 minutes, The Shallows doesn’t overstay its welcome and is never boring.
Ultimately though, this is a Blake Lively film. The actress has said she was inspired to take the role by husband Ryan Reynolds’ work in the similarly minimalist thriller Buried (2010), and she does him proud. Although a little strained at times, the photogenic star puts in an impressive physical performance, doing many of her own stunts including some actual surfing. She manages to project both strength and vulnerability – you are sure that she is tough enough to survive the ordeal but are still sympathetic to her plight. Sorry shark, she still made me root for her.