When I encountered my first great white shark, I was surprised by two things. The first was how graceful he was, as he moved almost effortlessly from out of the waters off Isla Guadalupe, and the second was how timid he seemed. Even though we were offering free food, and even though there were no other sharks about, he stayed low and swam around our cages cautiously, fixing his eyes on us to track everything we were doing. He never did anything that would have endangered his own well-being, and as quickly as he appeared, he disappeared into the blue like a ghost.
Let us be clear: this is not the shark of The Shallows, starring Blake Lively. The shark of this movie is a rampaging monster that only exists in the mind of Hollywood screenwriters and paranoid beachgoers. From a public relations standpoint, this is a terrible thing, a myth that scientists like Alex Antoniou, director of Fins Attached Marine Research and Conservation, have been trying to dispel in order to save the great white shark from extinction. It’s almost become a cliché to remind everyone that sharks are really taking it on the chin right now. Over 100,000,000 sharks are killed every year for everything from quack shark cartilage medicine to bowls of soup, and some are killed for merely being in the wrong place at the wrong time, dying as bycatch of the tuna industry.
I knew next to nothing going into the movie what to expect, and I had hoped that at worst the shark would be portrayed as a force of nature, much like the T. rex of the original Jurassic Park – neither “good” nor “bad”, just something that can’t be controlled. Instead, this shark is the fictional Indominus rex of Jurassic World, cunning and blood-thirsty, a villain in the truest sense of the word. There were a few scenes which capture a great white’s true self, including one that fans of Discovery Channel’s Air Jaws specials on Shark Week will love, but for the most part, swimmers, surfers, and scuba divers take heart – while real sharks aren’t the cutesy pals from Finding Nemo, the chances of you coming across a shark like the one from this movie are even smaller than the risk of an actual shark bite – next to nothing.
So, getting the science out of the way, how does the movie play out? Boiling it down to its purest form, it’s Blue Crush meets 127 Hours meets Jaws. That’s like 2 ½ good movies right there (sorry, Blue Crush). Once I could turn down the voice in my head shouting “sharks don’t do that!” and “ok, here’s what *I* would have done”, I enjoyed the movie quite a bit. The PG-13 rating makes the movie pull a few punches, or rather, distributes the punches in such a way that robs what could have been a gruesomely fantastic scene to make it more… odd than anything else. As every “survival” movie rests on the actor’s ability to carry the weight of the world on their shoulders: Blake Lively carries that weight pretty well. She starts out as such a radiant presence at the beginning of the movie, and as the course of events takes her through a barnacle-and-jellyfish filled hell, her burdens are felt and believed. Except for one really big mistake towards the beginning of the adventure, she’s a smart protagonist you want to see succeed. It’s also a beautiful film, shot wonderfully with the ocean a rainbow of colors at the beginning, turning to a dark, slate grey as the terror unfolds.
Her co-star for much of the film, besides the shark, is a seagull, and I want to dispel any non-believers, seagulls actually do form these weird bonds with people in a short time. I once spent a December morning with a seagull I met on a Florida beach I dubbed “Friday” after Robinson Crusoe’s aide-de-camp, and I was sad to leave him.
Back to sharks, I will say one thing for the film. It does get the science right behind the first shark bite. I hesitate to use the word “attack” in real life, as the word attack generally connotes something the shark is not doing. Almost all injuries resulting from an encounter with a great white are the result of a single bite that the shark uses to determine if the prey is nourishing enough for the shark to make the effort. If not, it spits it out and moves on. Humans aren’t on the menu. Of course, a great white bite is not like that of a kitten’s, so there’s going to be some blood loss, but Shallows Shark is most definitely attacking, so… Anyway, Blake’s character Nancy is out there in the surf right at the golden hour for shark activity: late afternoon. Out in the ocean by herself. And she’s on a surfboard. With marine mammals all about. If you were out to get yourself bit, that’s like textbook. Classic shark. Even George Burgess of the International Shark Attack File would be hard-pressed to call that “unprovoked.”
So don’t do that! Do swim with a buddy, understand that you’re a guest in the shark’s home, and be comfortable in the knowledge that you’re more likely to die from falling off a toilet than from a shark bite. Go see The Shallows for some guilty summer thrills. When you’re done, check out Fins Attached to learn more about how sharks REALLY behave and what you can do to advance the cause of shark conservation, and maybe offer up a donation as penance for those guilty thrills while you’re at it, because to a shark, we’re the horror movie.
GUEST FILM COMMENTARY BY ‘ARIZONA’S NERD POET LAUREATE’ – THE KLUTE
The Klute is an award-winning slam poet from Phoenix, Arizona, and an amateur shark conservationist. His latest book, Chumming the Waters, is a collection of poetry for sharks, by sharks, is available at Lulu Press and all the profits are donated to Fins Attached to help keep sharks in our dreams and in our oceans.