SHALLOWS (2016) tells about a surfer who has to resolve a psychological trauma. Having lost her mother to cancer, she vacates on an abandoned island. A great white shark wounds her in a gruesome attack. Stranded on a rock, the surfer has to find her way back to the shore.
The story becomes a metaphor of her struggle with abandonment issues. She discovers that the nature around her is gamified. A rock, a whale carcass, a seagull, a hook — all these elements contain inferences and possibilities. To decipher their meaning, the surfer has to work by trial and error. Once she ventures out of her comfort zone, the invisible map to the shore reveals itself. In the end, the surfer outwits the shark by forcing it to swallow the (literal) hook.
And this is more-or-less the route you will take in any game. The original twist in SHALLOWS is that the surfer’s success depends on immersion in the emotional meaning of the world. She does use her mind to connect the rock, the seagull and the whale carcass into a coherent map. But success ultimately depends on her mindfulness of the surface.
In a telling moment, a seagull appears out of nowhere. You would expect the seagull to provide a hint towards the resolution. But the seagull in SHALLOWS does not communicate anything. Rather, he forms a strange alliance with the surfer, simply by being there. It is as though they recognize loneliness in each other’s eyes. This becomes the surfer’s motivation. She senses that the seagull’s pointless presence contains an invisible clue. Digging deep under the surface won’t remove the trauma. You have to take things as they are.
The film is gorgeously designed, yet its beauty isn’t simply decoration. Rather, it seems that aesthetic form itself motivates learning. We might see it as some kind of ‘’divine geometry’’, or a ‘’natural algorithm’’. Whatever term is used, the colors, shapes and rhythms of THE SHALLOWS have emotional valences. The film’s slogan claims ‘’What was once in the depth is now on the surface’’. This does not mean that only looks matter while brains are perfunctory. Rather, it points to a psychic geometry.
There is another important aspect to this design. By suggesting that nature is gamified, the film is also rethinking optical technology. No single gadget can help the surfer escape the shark. All the messages she sends fail to reach the humans on shore. Technology cannot carry the weight of human interaction. This isn’t because the gadgets are faulty. Rather, it is because humans expect them to provide an unified perspective.
In a darkly humorous scene, two scuba divers with Go Pro cameras attempt to save the surfer. They stupidly misinterpret her hand waving as an invitation, instead of a warning. The shark swallows them both, and only the Go Pro recordings remain. The recordings provide an important lesson. To find a way out, the surfer must abandon her subjective viewpoint. She has to sense the viewpoints of the shark, the seagull, the rock and the sea. In this game, they are all valid perspectives.