The Deeper Meaning of The Shallows (2016) – AKA How to Battle Existential Nihilism

Today on Think Spiritual Podcasts I am out to prove that Nancy Adams (Blake Lively) is a more complete Hero than Carol Danvers AKA Captain Marvel (Brie Larson).

Honestly, I expected that The Shallows was going to be a terrible movie and, thankfully, I turned out to be wrong.

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I’ve been sick for a week and my voice was out of shape, but now I’m feeling better and my voice is mostly back to normal! Today on Think Spiritual Podcasts I get to watch Blake Lively in a bikini.

[big smile]

[clip of a battered and bleeding Blake Lively]



[shocked expression]


Would someone please get that poor woman a snuggie, some chocolate and a golden retriever puppy?


Hello Spiritual Seekers and welcome to yet another episode of Think Spiritual Podcasts. As always, I’m your host, Mark, and today we are taking a deep dive into the 2016 film, The Shallows.

And, yes, you’re going to hear that joke more than once today – it’s kind of in the title.

I’ve chosen to analyze The Shallows today because I want to point out that Blake Lively’s character, Nancy Adams, is a great Hero. She may even be a better hero than Brie Larson’s Carol Danvers aka Captain Marvel.

Let me specify that I do think that Captain Marvel is a decent movie. I enjoyed it. I really don’t feel that the political or ideological messages were overpowering the story. It had some great Hero moments and a couple of important lessons.

Captain Marvel’s “birth of the hero” scene was fantastic and the entire lesson of not burying your emotions – aka embracing your feminine archetype – is extremely important for people to hear in our world today.

However, in this episode of Think Spiritual Podcasts I am going to argue that Nancy Adams is a more complete Hero than Carol Danvers and that The Shallows is a hell of a girl-power film that beats the pink panties off of Captain Marvel.

When Christine picked The Shallows to watch for a movie night a couple of months ago, I have to admit that I was very skeptical of it. I expected another version of Deep Blue Sea or some B-grade shark movie.

Now, I love sharks. I mean, I really love sharks. If I had followed my childhood dreams, I would probably be diving and studying them at this very moment – oh, the past regrets of things not done. *sigh*

My point being, I love sharks and I hate seeing them misrepresented in pretty much every movie. I know, they’re not cute and cuddly and, like any wild animal, they can be very dangerous, but I really wasn’t happy with how the Great White was portrayed in The Shallows.

It rarely happens, but for once I had my “literal movie glasses” on a little too tight. I’ve been harping about this problem for years now: most people are watching movies way too literally and they are expecting movies to be more and more “real” and “accurate”…

…and this is not a good thing!

Why do you want “real” and “accurate” from a movie? Most of you don’t even like real life!

Okay, let’s not go too far down that path right now. I only brought it up to confess that, yes, even I sometimes fall into the pit of literal-ism. I don’t know if that’s a word or a religious practice, but it seems to fit what I’m talking about.

So, yes, for the first half of The Shallows I was griping about how “sharks don’t do that” or “sharks don’t act that way” or “that’s not what would happen” or “she should be dead from that much blood loss”.

However, there was a little earworm niggling at me and I think Christine was getting something out of the film by this time. I paused the movie and we talked about it and then we backed it up to Nancy’s phone call with her father before she began her surfing.

[insert clip]

Holy crap.

The shark is nihilism.

Just like I mentioned in my Lady in the Water breakdown, the water in this movie represents consciousness and the deep water – where Nancy usually never goes…nor does she ever surf in the dark – represents the depths and shadows of the unconscious of our soul.

And Nancy is having an existential crisis at this point in her life, thus, existential nihilism takes the form of a insatiable, angry, scarred and ugly shark.

One note here before I go any further: nihilism is actually a branch of philosophy and existential nihilism is the theory that life has no essential meaning or value. I am going to be pretty much exclusively referring to existential nihilism throughout this talk, but I’m going to only call it nihilism because it’s too much of a tongue twister to keep saying existential nihilism.

All good? Great! Here we go deep diving into The Shallows – I warned you I’d make that joke again!

I think it’s necessary to view this movie from a spiritual or, shall we say, a mythological and Hero’s Journey perspective, because it’s kind of a crap movie if you take it literally. It’s over-the-top and ridiculous and poor Nancy Adams most likely should have died of blood loss.

However, from that same spiritual viewpoint, we do have a lot more emotional blood or soul blood within us. We can bleed out for a long, long time before we spiritually perish.

The fact is, Nancy is already bleeding when the movie begins, but we, as the viewers, aren’t made aware of this until sixteen minutes into the film when we discover that Nancy’s mother died after a long battle with cancer.

Nancy and her mother shared a love of surfing and now Nancy has come to a hidden beach in Mexico that was very special to her mother. Her mother first visited it when she found out she was pregnant with Nancy. In one sense, Nancy was “born” on the sands of this beach and it is here where she will die and be reborn.

During that conversation with her father that I played a few minutes ago, it is revealed that Nancy was in medical school, but she is on the verge of quitting due to the death of her mother. We’re given the impression that Nancy wanted to become a doctor so she could help people and perhaps use her skills to save her mother.

But Nancy is in despair now. She has learned that she can’t save everyone. She’s wondering why she should try. She wonders why her mother fought so long and hard when the end result didn’t change.

That right there is the wound that Nancy is bleeding from. That is nihilism: what is the point in anything? What is the point in trying? What is the point in fighting? What is the point in living? We’re all going to end up dead anyway – a single truth that is impossible to ignore after it bites you.

Nancy hangs up on her father and gets out on her surfboard to catch a few more waves before dark. She ends up paddling out pretty far and just floats on the surface for a while. She tends to not go out where the water gets really deep, but this time some dolphins pop to the surface and tempt her to chase them.

Little bastards. That some mischievous Supernatural Aid right there, “Hey, follow us! Come out deeper! It’ll be fine!”

And what does Nancy come across next? A dead whale – bloated and rotting in the sun. Sometimes there are some ugly things in the depths of our soul. And there are other things in the depths of our soul as well. Things that feed on the ugly things within us.

The dead whale stinks and grosses Nancy out and she suddenly gets a creepy feeling. She realizes how far she is from shore and that she really shouldn’t be here.

She begins to paddle back and she catches a wave to speed up her journey, but it’s too late. Nancy has come too far. The First Threshold has been crossed – damn those adorable dolphins! – and the Threshold Guardian will not let her return.

That’s another role the Shark plays in this film, by the way. It’s what is known as a Threshold Guardian. Some Threshold Guardians must be overcome so you can actually begin your Hero’s Journey, while others, like this Shark, allow you to pass the boundary, but then prevent you from going back.

So, Nancy has been knocked from her surfboard and she has been bitten deeply by the Shark. Her outer body is now as wounded as her inner soul.

She clambers onto the whale carcass and…ew…that would be absolutely horrible. And it’s kind of strange that Nancy’s “Belly of the Whale” stage of her Hero’s Journey actually begins on a dead whale. I have no idea if that was coincidence or planned by the director and editors.

As I’ve said in Hero’s Journey episodes of Think Spiritual, the “Belly of the Whale” stage can also be termed as “the womb of the world” and this is even somewhat signified in the film by some island formations that Nancy calls “the pregnant lady”. Birth and death and rebirth are constant themes in this film.

Nancy’s metamorphosis into the Hero – her time in the womb – begins on the whale carcass and continues for a good chunk of the film on some nearby rocks that she swims to.

It is on these rocks where Nancy wrestles with her biggest foe: herself.

It is on these rocks where Nancy has to ask herself what is the point in going on? Why should she keep trying? Why not just slip into the water and die? Why not just let the Shark eat her?

You see, this is Nancy’s struggle with Nihilism. It is here where she begins to identify with the struggle that her mother went through. Nancy isn’t being wasted away by a killer disease, but she is dying. She has to find her reason to keep on living.

There’s a lot of story here that I’m going to skip over because there’s no reason for me to give you all the details. What I will tell you is that Nancy, still trapped on the rocks, eventually gets hold of an action sports camera that’s floating by and this is kind of a cool, modern take on a message in a bottle.

At first she begins to record a very analytical, fact-based account of her ordeal – this is a very practical and masculine thing to do. “There’s a problem to solve and these are the steps to fixing it.”

But Nancy then realizes that she has a more important message to convey. She pauses and begins to record a more heartfelt message and it is at this point that Nancy, the Hero, is born.

This is Nancy’s “Meeting with the Goddess” moment. This is the renewal and rebirth of the Feminine within her. Up to this point she had been burying all of her emotions. This is the Divine Feminine rising to the surface and being given a voice once again after being silenced for so long: the same message that Captain Marvel attempts to convey, by the way.

Nancy tells her sister and her father that she loves them. She tells her father that he was right and that she will fight. And she finally properly grieves the loss of her mother.

Goddess arisen, Hero born, Nancy sets out on her “Road of Trials”. All the lessons she learned on the rocks prepared her for this and Nancy sets out on a 40 yard swim to a buoy.

Okay, I don’t need to go through all the details of this 40 yard journey, so, spoiler alert, she makes it to the buoy and not without causing the Shark some hurt and pain either. Every bit of knowledge, every bit of determination, every bit of not giving up puts another scar on Nihilism.

However, the closer you get to freedom, the deeper and more dangerous the water gets.

On the buoy, Nancy finds a flare gun and she uses it to signal a passing ship. Which, of course, still doesn’t see her. And this is Nancy’s defining moment. No one is going to save her. Nancy has to save herself.

Just like her mother had to do.

All along Nancy has been asking herself, “What is the point in fighting when I can’t save anyone and we’re all going to die?” But at this moment she realizes that the fight, the will, the determination to maintain a physical presence on this Earth is the point. The journey is what matters because we really have so little control of the outcome.

Boom! There we go! That’s the very thing that has the most power over Nancy and the entire reason she began this quest. “Atonement with the Father” ladies and gentlemen!

This is her fight and hers alone and she’s going to fight just like her mother taught her to.

And in that moment of enlightenment, the Shark strikes the buoy and attempts to ram Nancy off her perch. I love Nancy’s simple and determined “Uh-uh” at that point.

Unfortunately for the Shark, it doesn’t know that it’s already dead. Nancy has already made the decision to not give in. Sure, Nihilism doesn’t like that, but it’s losing the war now.

Let me point out here that Nihilism actually is a useful tool, but the problem is that it can turn into a weapon of mass destruction. It can impale the user as easily as whatever facade of life it is cutting through.

That is what Nihilism is for: to break down what isn’t true and real in our life. Once that task is done, Nihilism has three roads to take: surrender in peace and possibly be transformed, sacrifice itself for the good of the kingdom (like Skar in Thor: Raganarok) or it has to die.

In this example of The Shallows, Nancy’s Nihilism – that sounds like a band name…hmmm – Nancy’s Nihilism takes the form of a deranged shark and there is really nothing she can do except kill it. And she does so by diving deep: deeper than she has ever gone before.

The shark dies and at this point, Nancy essentially drowns. This is a very, very common theme in stories for a character’s “Apotheosis” stage of the Hero’s Journey. No, she’s not physically dead, but the “old” Nancy is gone and a “new” Nancy has to rise from the waters. Drowning is an extremely common symbol of death and rebirth in many films.

For Nancy this Apotheosis stage is combined with her return to the “Normal World”. She is pulled out of the depths of the “soul” and brought back to the physical realm of the land. Notice that she is full of “soul” or full of “spirit”. The realm of water that she just came from completely fills her and she has to expel it in order to survive in the Normal World. She has to remember how to breathe.

Also notice that here, finally, she gets a little bit of help. “Rescue from Without” is what this stage of the Hero’s Journey is. Carlos, her taxi driver, pulls her to shore when she’s about 20 feet from it. That’s it! That’s the only help she gets the whole movie!

Girl power!

No, I’m not being anti-man here. Once again, this is not about gender in the slightest. Still talking about archetypes, people! Male or female you can all take the same Hero’s Journey as Nancy did. You can all delve the depths of your souls and find your inner god and goddess.

Alright, final scene of the movie: it’s a year later. Nancy is on a beach once again – talk about facing your fears! She has scars. She has finished med school and is a doctor. And she is finally teaching her little sister to surf the waves and depths of her soul.

The Hero has matured, become “Master of Two Worlds” and is now taking up the mantle of the Mentor. There aren’t too many movies where we see a character’s full Hero’s Journey completion and I have to say that this one surprised the hell out of me.

And there we have it, Dear Listeners, my interpretation of the vast depths of the 2016 film, The Shallows.

I have to say that this movie hits home for me. Battling with existential nihilism was something that literally took me decades to overcome. It was only a couple of years ago that I finally understood what my purpose was and at that point Nihilism bowed its head and said, “Okay, you win.”

We’re actually friends now. I tell Nihilism that, yes, there is a point to life and living and Nihilism helps me figure out what is worth putting my energy into and what I should avoid. As I said, it can be useful tool.

Thank you very much for watching or listening yet again. Please do not hesitate to like, share, comment, and subscribe because every little bit encourages me to keep putting my weird and wonderful ideas out there for you to ponder.

I have been your host, Mark. This has been another Deeper Meaning of Movies episode of Think Spiritual Podcasts and I know that if you dive into the depths of your soul that you will find your inner Goddess just as Nancy did and that inner Goddess will then give you the strength and determination and the understanding of your emotions in order to change your Self so you will ultimately change your world.

I will see you on the next episode of Think Spiritual Podcasts.

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