two women in a small boat, looking down at the water in fear
Courtesy The Guardian

The low-budget horror film The Reef: Stalked uses sharks as a metaphor for patriarchal violence, to be overcome by courage and sisterhood. The feminist message is delivered with effective style and verve. But in our current era of reef collapse and species extinction, when you frame empowerment as a serrated triumph over nature, you may find yourself bleeding out on the end of your own knife.

Director Andrew Traucki is best known for his 2010 shark attack film The Reef. His new effort isn’t a sequel; despite the consistency of name and genre, the characters and plot are completely standalone. 

The Reef: Stalked opens with domestic violence. Nic (Teressa Liane) finds her sister Cathy (Bridget Burt) drowned in the tub by Cath’s abusive husband Greg (Tim Ross.) Nine months later, Nic, her younger sister Annie (Saskia Archer), and friends Jodie (Ann Truong) and Lisa (Kate Lister) go on a reef diving trip to celebrate Cath’s life. 

The idyllic images of sun, water, and reef marine life are inevitably interrupted by a great white. To defeat the aquatic enemy, Nic has to face her fear of submersion caused by her sister’s death while repairing her relationship with Annie. The shark, rising from the depths, is a symbol of repressed trauma and grief. With teeth.

The shark is also linked to the murderous Greg. The great white is not just an opportunistic predator. Like the title says, it stalks the four friends with deliberate, tireless malice, over days and over miles. They are in its element and it is a kind of remorseless god determined to destroy them, just as men like Greg drown their victims in patriarchy—in his case literally and figuratively.

Real sharks, obviously, do not behave like human beings; they don’t take a particular dislike to particular humans and decide to make their lives miserable. The film is taking poetic or narrative license. In doing so, it reverses predator and prey, and fundamentally misrepresents the nature of sharks, of humans, and . . . well, of nature.

In 2021, there were a total of 11 deaths by shark bite worldwide. In comparison, environmental groups estimate that human beings kill somewhere around 100 million sharks a year. That’s about 11,400 sharks killed every hour. Sharks worldwide are dying faster than they can reproduce. We’re hunting them to extinction. 

Shark fins are a delicacy in many parts of the world, and some sharks are caught and killed just for their fins, which are sliced off. Many of these sharks are then returned to the water, where they painfully bleed to death. Other sharks are slaughtered accidentally. Great white sharks in particular are often killed as bycatch when they get tangled in the nets of fishing boats trawling for swordfish. 

Sharks literally can’t even dream of the systematic carnage that humans inflict on their species. And that carnage is, in fact, related to the carnage humans inflict on each other. A capitalist system that views itself as entitled to all the world’s resources, immediately and without any thought for the future, is closely tied to a patriarchal system in which men see themselves as entitled to women’s bodies, affections, and lives. Exploitation, as an ethos and an ethic, is directed against genders and species in analogous, if not identical, ways.

The Reef: Stalked doesn’t draw those connections, though. Its traumatized protagonists don’t express solidarity with a natural world that is also under assault. Instead, they seek empowerment by identifying with the shark slaughterers—and by encouraging viewers to do so as well. Victim and victimizer are shuffled so you end up feeling like you’re on the side of the weak even as you feel the rush of being one of the strong.

The Reef: Stalked
93 min. Wide release on VOD

There are horror narratives which have tried to connect human suffering to the planet’s in more thoughtful ways. The brutality of the family in Texas Chainsaw Massacre is connected to the violence they inflict, and the exploitation inflicted on them, in the slaughterhouse where they work. More recently, Underwater’s deep-sea monsters are summoned by irresponsible human digging. Nature in that film hasn’t turned on us; we’ve pulled it down around ourselves.

Despite such counterexamples, though, the default remains the more familiar, straightforward story of humans against nature. The world is out there for us to swim around in, we tell ourselves. If there are dangers, they’re there to challenge us so that we can eventually triumph. Those are narrative beats everyone’s familiar with and enjoys.

It’s unlikely that someone’s going to see The Reef: Stalked and go out and murder a bunch of sharks. But the fact that we tend to see nature as victimizing us rather than the other way around does have an effect on the present and future of the planet. 

Hollywood loves empowerment through violent triumph. But if we violently triumph over the planet—and we seem well on our way to doing so—then we won’t have a planet to live on. Hungry, toothy mouths wide, we circle ourselves not like a shark, but like that much worse predator, a human being.