Escape to the Terraform Tropics: Geography and Gender in Marine Adventure Films from Queensland

The ‘marine adventure film’ is an emerging genre among the blockbuster films emanating from the industry hub centred in Queensland’s Gold Coast. The characteristics of these films derive not only from Hollywood adventure epics but from the particular use of locations and setting provoked by contemporary trends in digital mise en scène, and the influence of location offset incentives of the Australian screen industries. The Shallows (Jaume Collet-Serra, 2016), and the quest of its heroine, Nancy (Blake Lively), exemplifies the generation of unique settings through layering of digital environments on location and studio footage. I term this process ‘terraforming’, a term I derive from science fiction where it describes the modification of an environment, to suggest the complex virtual ecologies of these productions and to probe the cultural economies of the spectacle. A career challenge for Blake Lively, Nancy’s quest in The Shallows also highlights the role of gender in the imagining of the terraform place, figured by a ‘female’ island in mise en scène, while the film’s publicity extolled the Australian beaches where the (limited) location footage was shot. Nancy’s solo-survival epic is therefore a case study in the terraform render of gender, myths and locations in marine adventure films.

Re-setting Queensland
Since the establishment of Village Roadshow Studios on the Gold Coast, and the industry hub it has stimulated into a “local Hollywood”, [1] a growing number of productions feature settings in coastal, tropical or marine spaces. These films constitute what I call the ‘marine adventure drama’, films that represent on-sea and landed adventures of mariners, swimmers, divers and surfers, including on-shore and shipboard action. The narrative conventions span quests by heroic subjects – variously male or female, or couples or groups – for treasure, survival or escape from predators or destinies. Some titles date from some of the earliest of the Studio’s productions, including Ghost Ship (Steve Beck, 2002) and Peter Pan (P.J. Hogan, 2003), and more since the advent of location offsets have taken productions further afield in Queensland such as Nim’s Island (Jennifer Flackett and Mark Levin, 2008), Fool’s Gold (Andy Tennant, 2008) and Triangle (Christopher Smith, 2009). A number, including the most recent examples, are high budget blockbusters by American corporate studios: The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (Michael Apted, 2010), The Shallows (2016), Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg, 2017), Kong: Skull Island (Jordan Vogt Roberts, 2017) and the forthcoming Aquaman (James Wan, 2018). This last group all meet the blockbuster conventions defined by Mark David Ryan, including size, scale, “superlative status” of spectacle, and the number of release screens; the “superlative” spectacle is also engendered in the “immense size and scale and the amount of publicity and media coverage they receive that emphasise this exceptionality”. [2] Complexity of the financial and creative governance of the film-making, arguably, also marks blockbuster production, although it is unlikely to be visible in the aesthetic spaces, the spectacle or narrative fictions. [3]

The narrative conventions of the marine adventure drama, however, are less of interest for this article than the conventions of setting in montage composed of studio and location footage adapted or modified with extensive blue-screen production and visual effects (‘vfx’ ). I call this ‘terraform’ setting, to adapt a term from science fiction (or hypothetical science). [4] ‘Terraforming’ is the changing of the atmosphere, temperature and surface topography or ecology of a planet to be similar to earth and therefore habitable by earthlings. [5] It resembles the technique of creating digital environments for cinematic settings in which the human subjects are artificially placed through use of vfx. This practice is by no means unique to production of blockbuster marine adventure films in Queensland and constitutes a wide range of contemporary cinematic environments and art direction. But its use in production of the marine adventure-type of film from the Gold Coast, a region noted for its culture of marine recreation, represents a particular case study.

Investigating terraform setting lends to the geospatial analysis modelled by Jane Stadler, Peta Mitchell and Stephen Carleton (albeit not the level of detailed or narrative cartography they demonstrate) in which location and landscape act as “coordinates of meaning making”. [6] The marine adventure drama is typically set in fictional narrative places, often iconic of coastal tropical regions (though not always, as Ghost Ship is set in the Bering Sea). The productions sometimes utilise the proximity of the studios to the supplementary infrastructure in nearby theme parks, while the location footage may or may not be filmed in the region of the Gold Coast or even Queensland and is often ambiguous in terms of credited identity. Locations may benefit the productions through the federal government’s location offset incentives, [7] and thus locations are effectively monetised. This is relevant to textual meaning because locations are identified with the provenance of a film in the system of credits, and provenance – to adapt Andy Pike on the geography of branding – renders goods meaningful and valuable in “the times and spaces of particular markets”. [8] Rather than the audiences for the films, locations signify the markets in which Australia competes for offset productions. The touted industry asset – the offset – becomes a substitute for the film asset – the location – and this occurs amidst politicised rhetoric of value to the national economy of the benefit of offsets.

The locations tend to receive a preponderance of publicity, as occurred with The Shallows, a Columbia Pictures production. It is difficult to establish conclusively which offsets were granted for The Shallows without insider knowledge of the production. But unmistakeable is the prominence granted to the locations in publicity, and in the bonus features packaged in the DVD, although the main locations were not in Queensland, nor ultimately comprise very much of the film. The Shallows blends location footage shot on Lord Howe Island (in New South Wales) in extensively effects-ridden montage. Setting in The Shallows gains prominence through the spectacle of the heroine, Nancy, which is conflated with the terraform place through the ‘female’ island that is a feature of mise en scène. Nancy’s survival-adventure with a large shark takes place, in the fiction of The Shallows, on a deserted beach in Mexico where Nancy surfs in mourning for her deceased mother who surfed there long before her. Mexico, with its ancient histories of reverence for divine femininities, and the terraform spectacle of the female island, provides a mythic setting for Nancy’s marine adventure that might not so readily arise from a setting in Queensland, or that the masculinised histories of Australian beaches might make less credible. [9] The gender semiotics are therefore more than incidental to the terraform spatiality of The Shallows.

The role of gender has antecedents in earlier genre fictions in tropical settings. Insofar as tropics or jungles are spaces of (literary) adventure, the nineteenth-century imperial romance narratives are forerunners in which the ideological quest is implicitly masculine and often premised on the ‘femininity’ of the landscape of conquest. [10] In twentieth-century cinema, Patty O’Brien’s account of race and sex in Hollywood South Seas fantasies contextualises gender as an aspect of the imagining of (tropical) environments in which the women are objects of desire. [11] Jane Landman describes the “scenic melodrama” of masculine adventure that marginalises women and Indigenous people in pre- and post-World War II Australian co-productions in the Pacific (set and or made in Papua New Guinea and the Torres Strait Islands). [12] The interplay of gender, landscape, location or environment is configured variously in these accounts, although mainly structured through binary oppositions between human subjects and setting in which setting is subordinate. In terraform marine adventures like The Shallows, where setting is designed, even customised, with visual effects, gender still shapes the adventure narrative, albeit in new ways (and beyond this paper to examine closely). Meanwhile, gender and location endow the geospatial features of mise en scène with uniqueness that pertains to status of the film as commodity.

Raising these issues also enables reflections on Mark David Ryan’s observations about the critical hesitancies around “international and Hollywood blockbuster movies filmed in Australia” and how these hesitancies possibly stem from prejudices regarding the “independence” of Australian cinema as well as ambiguities of the effects of a globalised system of film production. [13] Ryan’s comments were foreshadowed, for instance, by the concerns of Therese Collins and Felicity Davis of some years ago about participation in runaway production leading to “downgrading of national cinema into an offshore service industry for global Hollywood”, [14] and the impact on the aspirations of local filmmakers. Tom O’Regan and Rama Venkatasawmy, on the other hand, perceived the participatory edge to be gained for the Australian film industry. [15] The industry is much-transformed since those diverging views were published in 2004 and 1999 respectively, and debate about ‘national cinema’ has moved on to a degree of acceptance of the transnational dynamics of industry today amidst the more general sea-change in film production technologies and practices worldwide. Yet neither of these opinions predicted the role of place and location in the present industry profile.

At face value, it is essentially coincidental that the terraform marine adventure drama proliferates amidst the local culture of marine recreation on the Gold Coast, or that the rhetoric of locations benefits Queensland’s identity as the ‘holiday tropics’, albeit large parts of Queensland are not located in the tropics at all. A ‘Queensland film’ might not be definable in the same sense as one might speak of a ‘Hollywood movie’, a ‘Hong Kong Martial Arts Film’, or an ‘MGM musical’: a film studio is liable to produce a film in any kind of setting, irrespective of the location of the studio, and plenty of Queensland-based productions depict spaces other than the coastal tropics. But a simple comparison with past domestic productions set and made in Queensland like, for instance, Travelling North (Carl Schultz,1987) and Radiance (Rachel Perkins, 1998) that date from before the studio and offset era, can highlight some obvious differences from the marine adventure drama. Most obviously, those domestic films feature authenticable narrative places, and the regional tropical settings mythologise Queensland as paradise and figure its difference from other places within the settler nation. [16] Transnational films of complex provenance targeting global markets resignify or disguise the territories of production. Yet, as Pike describes, a “[p]lace gets into goods by the way its elements [are] managed to combine”, [17] even elements as potentially diffuse and transferrable as locations that furnish the aesthetic spaces of terraform tropical marine dramas.

Of the Tropics and the Terraform
The tropics, so-called, is something of an imperialist construction when taken back to its classical roots. ‘The torrid zone’ in Aristotle’s ancient geography identified three zones of the world: the frigid, the temperate and the torrid. The first and third were deemed either too hot or too cold for “civilised habitation”, and the torrid zone has been stigmatised in the dominant “temperate” worldview as historical dystopia that rivals the cultural discourse of the tropics as “paradise”. [18] The myth of the tropics as paradise mainly prevails in commercial cinema, and is also traced to ancient geographies of the Antipodes in, for instance, O’Brien’s account of the Hollywood South Seas films. [19] Chua Beng Huat observes how in films of South East Asia the imaging of the tropics is predominantly connected to nature, and how heat and climate persist in the definitions. A “place of ‘romance’”, “never without blue sky, light clouds and gentle breeze”, the cinematic tropics is a “geography of the mind”, an ideological construction. [20] Alternatively, in films made in locations in regional Queensland, the tropics is an unstable imagining when examined across a range of texts, and production provenance. [21] In theatrical settings of Australia’s mythic “north”, a “tropical [zone]”, Stadler, Mitchell and Carleton argue that the “gothic” is a prevalent mode of representation in which (predominantly) women battle ghosts in a bush setting. [22] This trope persists in films like Radiance and Uninhabited (Bill Bennett, 2010), and there is the gothic trace of this woman battler of ghosts in Nancy of The Shallows.

The mythic history of the tropics is ripe for readaptation in the terraform landscapes of blockbuster digital cinema. The terraform abides in what is identified with a location even when the footage might be of as little as a few square metres or a landmark and the adaptation occurs in the layering of effects in digital environments. To take an example (unrelated to Australia), The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (Francis Lawrence, 2013) typifies terraform tropical scenography in a production that expanded over multiple sites from sound stages at Universal Studios, to water parks and jungles in Atlanta and Hawaii, and with a secondary CG production unit. Francis Lawrence, the director, comments on the “layered” effects in the scenes of the games for which the action was shot in locations but the settings were heavily modified with visual effects. [23] According to Lawrence, beach and landscape locations were extended and modified with visual effects to create the sense of a unique place. The initial vision of the Cornucopia was captured at a water park with the slides and other entertainments obscured with effects; the full image of the arena is only seen in aerial view in Catching Fire. [24] The natural (tropical) spaces of the games represent an important zone of skill and creativity for Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), whose abilities in combat and competition are exhibited in this environment. The setting therefore contributes to the credibility of the character, and the Hawaii locations create psychological resonance with films and television of comparable genre, like Lost (JJ Abrams, Jeffrey Lieber and Damon Lindelof, 2004–2010), and Survivor (Charlie Parsons, 2000– ).

A comparable effect accrues in the digitised mise en scène of The Shallows. According to publicity and trade press, The Shallows was commissioned in 2014 when Sony Pictures producer, Lynn Harris, purchased the spec script by Anthony Jaswinski, then titled, In the Deep. The much-quoted pitch, still prevalent in online press reports, as a “cross between 127 Hours, Jaws, and a touch of Gravity thrown in” is attributed to Louis Leterrier [25] who was originally appointed as director. Neither the title nor Leterrier lasted, as he was replaced by Jaume Collet-Sera, and the title underwent change, presumably, to avoid confusion with the (British) Dimension Films production of In the Deep aka 47 Metres Down (Johannes Roberts, 2017) about – surprisingly enough – two sisters on holiday in Mexico who become trapped in a shark cage. It was made at Pinewood Studios and the Underwater Studios London. Allusion to Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón, 2013) in The Shallows pitch refers to the resemblance between Nancy’s survival quest and Sandra Bullock’s solo space epic which has led to some playful internet mash-ups of sharks and astronauts. [26]

Studio footage for The Shallows was shot in a large tank at Village Roadshow Studios with extensive use of bluescreens for inscription of effects. Location footage is included, purportedly, in about 10% of the film and with the purpose, according to Collet-Serra, to “trick” the audience into accepting the reality of the effects-laden montage. [27] The interview in which this method is described makes no mention of location offset as an aspect of the financial arrangements for the production, or the requirement this entails regarding vision of Australian locations. Indeed, location footage appears to barely constitute 10%, and the beach footage, as noted, was shot on Lord Howe Island in New South Wales. Queensland might be mistaken as the source of the location beach footage given the reputation of coastal Queensland as the holiday tropics, and, increasingly, a site of production for marine adventure films. The film credits record the site of filming as “Village Roadshow Studios, Oxenford, Queensland Australia, and on location in Queensland”. A further credit records that it was: “Filmed on location at Lord Howe Island with the assistance of the Lord Howe Island Board and Community”. “Special thanks” are offered to “Gold Coast City Council” and “Marine Parks Authority New South Wales Government”; and further credits record that it was: “Filmed in Australia with the assistance of the Australian Government”; and “Filmed in Queensland Australia with the assistance of Screen Queensland”, with further “special thanks” to the “City of the Gold Coast Australia”. [28] These credits link The Shallows to its creation in the Village Roadshow film-hub, and encourage mis-recognition of the locations – although for a few minutes, at the start, Queensland provides a setting for Nancy’s journey to the beach, driven by Carlos (Óscar Jaenada) via a rainforest in Mt Tamborine.

This sequence follows the opening vision of a young boy (Pablo Calva) wkicking a football along a beach and coming upon a helmet with a camera attached to it washing up on the foreshore. The child activates the camera and stares in horror as it displays footage, from the perspective of the surfer’s helmet, of a surfboard rider taken by a shark. The scene cuts to Nancy aboard a rusted out 4-wheel drive vehicle driven by Carlos. The two of them chat in broken English and Spanish as they head for the beach along an avenue of (Queensland) rainforest. Their conversation forms exposition. Aside from identifying Nancy as an American in a place, as Carlos points out, where there are few “Gringos”, Nancy, gazing at pictures on her phone of her mother as a young woman, explains that her (lately deceased) mother was just pregnant with Nancy when the beach shots were taken. It is “our beach”, she says, meaning hers and her mother’s. On arriving at the beach, Carlos pronounces it “paradise”, while Nancy sights an island offshore which she compares to a pregnant woman, observing that the breasts and belly are visible in the form of the island. Apart from Nancy, the island is the only other ‘female’ in sight.

This island forms a persistent element of mise en scène, although Nancy does not swim or surf to it, visit it, or, apart from these opening comments, acknowledge it directly at all. Yet the island appears in manyi scenes with Nancy, while it is less visible in the few scenes with other (all male) characters. The authenticity of this island is unverifiable; its image seems to resembles some of the outcrops that form part of Lord Howe. Its iconic form, in which the maternal shape is apparent, suggests either digital modification of an existing landform, or an inserted image. This island also figures in publicity for the film, accompanying images of Nancy in publicity stills, [29] and it appears on the DVD cover. [30] When The Shallows was screened at the Cannes Film Festival, where Lively was also promoting her appearance in Woody Allen’s Café Society (2016), she appeared at the photo call for The Shallows with a set-up featuring a fin and a rock and with a backdrop reminiscent of the pregnant-woman island (an image is viewable at the endnote). [31]

Irrespective of its status as digitised or authentic, the island forms a mythic and atmospheric element of the Mexican setting in The Shallows. It references Nancy’s mourning for her mother, and silently supports her quest for survival of the shark attack. The pre-historic spectacle of the image of the island and its likeness – in Nancy’s description – to a maternal body evokes an atmosphere of pre-modernity and pre-patriachal female power that has credibility in the fictional setting of Mexico, with its history of veneration of divine femininities, stemming from an ancient history of goddess worship among Mesoamerican people, and the modern Catholic history of veneration of the Virgin Mary. [32] These mythic femininities of Mexico are alluded to in Carlos’ description in the exposition of Nancy as “Madonna” and implied in mise en scène through the image of the pregnant-woman island. Mexico might be chosen as a narrative disguise for the Australian locations but its mythic role is instilled and resonates in the accounts of the beach location on Lord Howe Island in the bonus features packaged in the DVD release of The Shallows.

In Finding the Perfect Beach: Lord Howe Island, [33] the careful choice of location and “perfect” suitability of this particular beach for its pristine and – Collet-Serra’s word – “mystical” qualities are described at length by Lively, the director, and producers, Lynn Harris and Matti Leshem. Lively comments on the search for a beach that would resemble a better known (South American) “tropical” beach but have a unique character. Environmental care is emphasised in Leshem’s account of the crew’s activities on Lord Howe. Essentially no reference is made to the extent of the effects in the montage, nor in an accompanying bonus feature, Shooting in the Shallows, [34] in which the activities in the location are profiled, with only brief comments on the studio production – downplayed as “technical” and “limited” – and the acting challenges of Lively’s bluescreen work. These bonus features create the impression of the primacy of the locations as site of production and contradict Collet-Serra’s press comments regarding the use of minimal location footage in the montage. As images of the beach and feature footage flash by in the bonus montage, intermittently showing the iconic pregnant-woman island, the same minimal technique seems deployed. The mystical Mexican beach and its island are further imbued with gendered aura through Lively’s adept performance in The Shallows.

A Unique Woman’s Place: The Island and the Warrior Mermaid
Perhaps in an inner allusion to the place of production, Nancy never learns the name of the beach on which she surfs. As a space of communion with the memory of her dead mother, Nancy’s “secret beach” with its pregnant-woman island offshore harbours feminine power and the faintly gothic aura of a hallowed space. The risks she encounters in the forms of masculine predators and death lends a quasi-feminist spirituality to Nancy’s quest. When Carlos departs, Nancy is alone on the beach but for the virtual company of her sister and father on the video phone from Galveston, Texas, who warn her about the risks of lonely beaches. Her father urges her to return home and resume her medical studies and fight for her goals like her mother would have wanted. Undeterred and determined to catch some waves before the sun goes down, Nancy leaves the phone and paddles seawards. She meets and speaks with two male surfers, one wearing the helmet-camera from the opening scene. They warn Nancy about a submerged rock nearby which will become a small island at low tide, and the poisonous coral that surrounds it. Yet, the locals refuse to tell Nancy the name of the beach – hers and her mother’s beach – on which she surfs. When she asks Carlos the name of the beach, he will not tell her. When she asks her fellow board riders, the English-speaking Mexican says, “if I told you, I’d have to kill you”. This gives a degree of sinister chill to Nancy’s idyll, and, after the surfers depart, Nancy is alone, except for the marine life. Summoned by a leaping school of dolphins, she paddles towards a large object: a whale that has been mauled to death by a shark. The vast cadaver becomes an island of refuge following Nancy’s first encounter with the shark, which mauls her leg before she swims to safety on the cadaver. The whale is of indeterminate gender but from the sanctuary it provides for Nancy, and in its spectacle as a source of food to numerous marine life, it appears as something female, even maternal. The shark, on the other hand, is identified as masculine by Nancy when she later refers to it as “he” in the message she records for her family on the camcorder. [35] As the shark approaches, the whale-cadaver rolls and collapses in the water, and Nancy alights and swims to safety on the emerging rocky cay. [36]

There she gains refuge overnight, injured and stalked by the shark, and accompanied by a seagull (which received a named credit: Sully “Steven” Seagull) [37] and the image of the pregnant-woman island. In these extended passages, Nancy performs a version of the “hybridised” gender masquerade of the warrior action woman that, to adapt Lee-Jane Bennion Nixon, exhibits both “to-be-looked-at-ness” and traditionally masculine skills with weaponry and technology, and “uninhibited” by “femininity”. [38] The hybridity emerges in Nancy’s passion for surfing, historically a male-dominated sport, while in scenes of her swimming underwater the raised face and streamlined locks and body are suggestive of mermaid spectacle. Her survival strategies, inspired by her medical training, include an act of self-surgery – more usually a performance of hard masculinity [39] – as she sews up her mauled and bleeding leg using her jewellery, her earrings and horn-shaped pendant, to suture the wound. After she retrieves the dead surfer’s helmet camera to record a message to her family, assuring them of her efforts to “fight” like her mother would have wanted, the mermaid vision resumes. In a digital feature, Nancy swims to a nearby life-buoy, evading the shark by immersing amidst a school of jellyfish for a protective shield that the shark will not penetrate. Aboard the buoy, she arms herself with the flare gun, and duly combats the shark and destroys it. Upon the shore, near drowning, she is rescued by Carlos and the boy. Yet, the mystery of the beach is neither resolved nor returned to. This place where Nancy triumphs over the shark, a feminine space of communion with the spirit of her late mother, is a place she does not know, at least, by name.

The namelessness of the place speaks to its location in the terraform tropics, a space in which the malleable spectacle of Queensland is interchangeable with mythic Mexico (its evocation also benefits from a cast of Spanish-speaking actors, although none of them are Mexican [40] ) and its aura of divine femininity that empowers Nancy’s quest to survive. The mystical beach forms a unique geospace for Nancy, even as the detail of the place and its terraform setting are contained, as Pike might say, in “spatial circuits of meaning and value” (24). Nancy is located in a sweet spot between Aztec goddesses and Madonnas of Mexican folklore, and the women battling ghosts in the Australian tropics. Her survival owes as much to medical training and courage as to the island, that silent visual element of terraform mise en scène on which the semiotics of gender and location converge. It signifies the uniqueness and difference of the fictional place, and, paradoxically, a certain invisibility of Queensland within the globalised flows of digital film production.

The Debatable Appeal of Blockbusters and Monsters
It is perhaps apocryphal that Francis Ford Coppola considered production of Apocalypse Now (1979) in Queensland before its eventual realisation in sites in South East Asia. [41] But it is now cinema history that a part-parody of Apocalypse Now in Kong: Skull Island gained part-production in Queensland. In Kong: Skull Island, the gender spectacle is based on masculine military histories of the Pacific Ocean where King Kong is resurrected upon an island in a CIA-classified location. Along with the forthcoming Aquaman, Kong: Skull Island made its way to the Gold Coast among the recent stream of blockbuster spectacles (and the Executive Producer of Aquaman, Rob Cowan, also worked on the Queensland production of San Andreas [Brad Peyton, 2015]). Terraform reprisals of mythic gods and monsters, the range of locations incorporated in the mise en scène further define the blockbuster-scale of production. Filmed in Vietnam, Hawaii, and Village Roadshow Studios on the Gold Coast, and some (unrecognisable) locations in Queensland, Kong: Skull Island is set on a mysterious Pacific island inhabited by a population of giant animal species (including King Kong). Hypermasculinity abounds in the gigantism of the spectacle and the allusions to Vietnam and Korean war dramas in its bizarre plot of military-scientific research. It resembles a pastiche of Pacific Rim (Guillermo del Toro, 2013), Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg, 1993) and Apocalypse Now, with reference to the latter in the assault on the island by a fleet of Vietnam-war vintage choppers alighting from – that sublime instrument of mass male-dominance – an American aircraft carrier. The spectacle is internally parodied by the mountain-sized silverback (gorilla) monster, Kong, tearing up the fleet mid-air, before snacking on a fishing feast of Kraken-sized octopus. The Fay Wray-moment of taming the beast belongs to a woman photojournalist (Mason Weaver, played by Brie Larson), nigh the only woman in the cast.

For these grand-scale productions, the taxpayer subsidises their own entertainment with offsets, touted as economic benefits to the nation. One might consider the forthcoming Aquaman, with its hero, played by Game of Thrones star Jason Momoa, already familiar from publicity images of his glowering face, ashy dreadlocks, silvery armoured body and trident a la King Neptune. IF reports that the federal government provided a “$22 million tax rebate” to secure the production with the optimistic prediction that it would generate “1000 jobs” and “inject over $150 million into the economy” and that it would be shot at the Studios and “on location in South East Queensland”. [42] There is no mention of a plan to shoot in New South Wales, where, duly, a court action resulted from the residents’ complaints about the closing of their favourite beach at Hastings Point for the duration of the shoot and in the absence of any undertaking to restore any damage to the beach. [43] By comparison with this environmentally-insensitive furore, and the nonsense plot of Kong: Skull Island, from the taxpayer’s point of view, The Shallows seems a relatively positive investment.

Yet the shark-horror of The Shallows is possibly less gripping and more subsidised than Andrew Trauckie’s (non-terraform) low budget, The Reef (2010), about a group of mariners stalked by a shark after their catamaran sinks. It was made without benefit of studio facilities or vfx, and shot partly in Queensland where its water scenes were filmed in Hervey Bay and Lady Elliot Island, and its shark footage was captured (pardon the pun) in Port Lincoln, South Australia. Another locally-made forerunner is Kimble Rendall’s Bait (2012), a Sharknado-like adventure that was produced by Brisbane-based Pictures in Paradise and part-funded by the Singapore government’s Media Development Authority, and it was filmed on the Gold Coast at locations in Coolangatta and Surfers Paradise, and at Village Roadshow Studios. These films, effectively, are all marine adventure dramas that emerge from Queensland and could suggest (to adapt Pike) the intertextual ways in which a “place gets into goods” in genre cinema. Queensland-made shark dramas go back to the days of White Death (Edwin G. Bowen, 1936) that was partly made (with government support) on the Great Barrier Reef, and where the spectacle of the Reef and the adventurer, Zane Grey, were more regarded than the (rubber) shark. Lesley Speed argues that White Death “resists categorisation in terms of national origin and genre”, combining elements of “travelogue”, “exotic exploitation”, “adventure” and “ethnographic film”, and notes the relevance to an emerging touristic discourse of promotion of the Reef. [44] Speed’s research suggests that “audiences were more interested in the scenery” and White Death did not “[generate] fear of sharks”. [45] White Death seems a more relevant precedent to Nancy’s adventure where the spectacle of the shark monster is ultimately subordinate to that of setting and the star.

The scale of publicity that surrounds a blockbuster and the industry stimulus it promises attracts speculators to its field of enterprise, and more than a little mis-information in the process. Such is the headline of an IF article, “WA’s Boogie Monster Helps to Terrorise Blake Lively in Qld-shot The Shallows”, and the enclosed claim that the film “was shot in Queensland”. [46] You might think – as I did, on a first reading – that the headline pertained to the spate of fatal shark attacks that have occurred in Western Australian waters in the last few years, and how growing alarm about sharks inspires audiences to see The Shallows. While The Shallows did well at the box office, Boogie Monster, in fact, is the Perth-based production company that provided some of the visual effects for The Shallows. A vfx artist, Phil Hew, says “it was inspiring to be part of something truly international” in describing how Boogie Monster transferred “large amounts of data from the west coast of USA to the west coast of Australia and back again”; the Managing Director, Steve Vojkovic, expresses the hope that “this is the start of larger projects looking to the west coast of Australia for finishing”. [47] Vojkovic’s allusion to “finishing” also suggests how their vfx work is akin to piece work, and hence provides a hint as to how some of the benefits accrue in the tech version of the so-called ‘gig economy’. Boogie Monster, however, does not receive a company credit among the several vfx companies credited; only Nathan McGuiness is personally credited as a “visual effects supervisor”. [48]

Perhaps it is safe to conclude only that the reliability of movie news, like film locations in terraform media, at times, is elusive, and that the same might be said of the profits to the nation from blockbusters. Politicians sometimes feature in the news of these productions, proclaiming the benefits or calling for expansion of the offsets. [49] But, while offsets benefit the productions directly, national gains are estimated as benefits to employment, infrastructure and opportunities. Little scrutiny is apparent of the actual results, either in the precise financial benefits or the domestic talent enhancement, except when journalists chase the evidence, or the players, like Boogie Monster, spruik their own. If reflections are possible on the debate cited earlier about the positioning effects on the Australian film industry in the Hollywood model, both sides, in a sense, are somewhat vindicated: the industry has grown but in whose long-term interests is questionable. While the political rhetoric refers to broad economic benefits, the creative scope is effectively set to the limits of genre. The terraform marine adventure inherits and reconfigures many tropes of genre and gender in its peculiar convergence of technology and myth, and in productions in which landscape and location attract as much attention as the stars, and geography becomes gender in the codes of narrative and mise en scène.

However, some attention to the outcomes are of interest, at the time of writing, to a parliamentary inquiry into the Australian film and television industry by the House Standing Committee on Communications and the Arts. [50] Submissions by Ausfilm and Screen Queensland argue for the expansion of the location offset from 16.5% to 30%, and for the decoupling of the location offset from the PDV offset, in order to avoid exceeding the offset and losing the visual effects work for Australia. The Chief Executive Officer of Screen Queensland, Tracey Vieira, explained to the inquiry: “when a production shoots here it cannot stay here to do visual effects” and “we have lost significant visual effects work from Australia as a result”. [51] The Shallows is one of the films mentioned during Vieira’s interview with the committee. As the Hansard records, The Shallows is identified by the Chairman, Luke Howarth MP, along with San Andreas, as a title he recognises: “I think The Shallows is the shark one —”; Vieira answers, “Yes. That was shot in Queensland, but we would like to say it was New South Wales where the sharks were, though!” [52] Still located in the tropical ‘geographies of the mind’, Queensland flickers in myths of Mexico and New South Wales, science-fictions of the Pacific, and maybe even Neptune’s Kingdom. To paraphrase Phil Hew, it is more than “international”, it is terraforming. No escape is at hand.

ACKNOWLEGEMENTS: Thanks to Eduardo de la Fuente, and participants in the CASE Seminar Series at James Cook University where I presented an early draft of this paper in September 2016; and thanks to Tim Groves and STP’s blind reviewers for advice on this version.

[1] See Ben Goldsmith, Susan Ward and Tom O’Regan, Local Hollywood: Global Film Production and the Gold Coast (St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2010).
[2] Mark David Ryan, “Australian Blockbuster Movies”, in Australian Screen in the 2000s, edited by Mark David Ryan and Ben Goldsmith (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017). Ryan does not refer specifically to the films discussed in this article.
[3] Re governance and contracting complexity in media production (not specifically blockbusters), see Stuart Cunningham, Terry Flew and Adam Swift, Media Economics (London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2015), pp. 77–81.
[4] Elsewhere, I adapted ‘terraform’ from urban geographers to describe edited conjunctions of screened space. See Allison Craven, “Dual Occupancy: Melbourne and the Feminist Drama of Dwelling in Monkey Grip”, Studies in Australasian Cinema 5.3 (2012): pp. 333–342.
[5] See, for instance, “Terraforming”, in The Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction, edited by John Clute, David Langford, Peter Nicholls and Graham Sleight (SFE Ltd, 2011–2017),; and “Terraforming” in The Mammoth Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction (London: Constable, 2001),
[6] Jane Stadler, Peta Mitchell, and Stephen Carleton (eds), Imagined Landscapes: Geovisualising Australian Spatial Narratives (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2016), pp. 1–28.
[7] See Ryan (“Australian”, forthcoming) where he outlines the conditions of offset entitlements and the distinction between Producer Offset (a local production incentive) and the Location Offset which is aimed at attracting production of international films to Australia. These offsets require specific terms of part-ownership of intellectual property and creative talent as well as compliance with criteria of location, and production expenditure (and other criteria). A Post, Digital and Visual Effects (PDV) offset is also available. See: The Department of Communications and the Arts Annual Report 2015/16 records that 55 “final” certificates and 16 “provisional” certificates were issued to productions in that year for Location and PDV offsets. See Annual Report 2015/16 (Canberra: Australian Government, 2016, p.43),
[8] Andy Pike, Origination: The Geographies of Brands and Branding (London: Wiley, 2015), p. 60.
[9] A Wikipedia entry refers to scrapping of earlier plans to shoot near Galveston, Texas owing to a lack of safety permits – see
[10] See, for instance, Sandra M. Gilbert, “Rider Haggard’s Heart of Darkness”, in Co-ordinates: Placing Science Fiction and Fantasy edited by George E. Slusser, Eric S. Rabkin and Robert Scholes (Southern Illinois University Press, 1983), pp 124–138; and Anne McClintock, Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Context (London: Routledge, 1995).
[11] Patty O’Brien, The Pacific Muse: Exotic Femininity and the Colonial Pacific (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2006).
[12] Jane Landman, The Tread of a White Man’s Foot: Australian Pacific Colonialism and the Cinema 1925-1962 (Canberra: Pandanus Books, 2006).
[13] Ryan, “Australian”.
[14] Felicity Collins and Therese Davis, Australian Cinema After Mabo (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004), p. 29–30. Their comments refer to the production of Moulin Rouge (Baz Luhrmann, 2001) rather than Village Roadshow Studios.
[15] Tom O’Regan and Rama Venkatasawmy, “A Tale of Two Cities”, in Twin Peeks: Australian and New Zealand Feature Films, edited by Deb Verhoeven (St Kilda, Vic.: Damned Publishing, 1999), pp. 187–203. Their case study is Dark City (Alex Proyas, 1998).
[16] Allison Craven, Finding Queensland in Australian Cinema: Poetics and Screen Geographies (London: Anthem Press, 2016), pp. 1–14.
[17] Harvey Molotch qtd in Pike, Origination, p. 60.
[18] Sandra Harding, “The Tropical Agenda”, Journal of Tropical Psychology, 1.1 (2011): pp. 2–5.
[19] O’Brien, The Pacific Muse, pp. 47–49.
[20] Chua Beng Huat, “Tropics, City and Cinema: Introduction to the Special Issue on Cinematic Representation of the Tropical/Urban City”, Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography Issue 29 (2008), pp. 1–7.
[21] See Craven, Finding Queensland, pp. 127–132.
[22] See “Cultural Topography and Mythic Space: Australia’s North as Gothic Space”, in Imagined Landscapes by Stadler, Mitchell and Carleton, pp. 69–96. See also Stephen Carleton, “Australian Gothic Theatre and the Northern Turn”, Australian Literary Studies 27.2 (2012), pp. 51–67.
[23] Francis, Lawrence, “Director’s Commentary”, in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (USA: Lionsgate Films, 2013). DVD.
[24] See the unmodified view of the Cornucopia in Catching Fire at:
[25] Angie Han, “Louis Leterrier Circling Shark Movie ‘In the Deep’”, 23 March 2015,
[26] Lively says that she was attracted to the role of Nancy partly due to the one-hander role of her husband, Ryan Reynolds, in Buried (Rodrigo Cortés, 2010), and that she wanted to know how “tough” and how “rewarding” the role was for Reynolds (qtd in James Mottram, “Being Blake”, Collective Hub issue 38 [2016]: pp. 30–34.)
[27] See Collet-Serra’s explanation of his technique of including one location shot in every scene in Matt Donato, “Exclusive Interview: Jaume Collet-Serra Talks The Shallows”, 2016,
[28] Also credited is “Participation of the Canadian Film or Video Production Services Tax Credit” (see The Shallows, Sony Pictures 2016).
[29] For example the island appears as backdrop to Nancy in the publicity stills supplied for these reviews: ;
[30] Some DVD artwork shows the island – see:
[31] See The image is an enlargement of “May 2016: Blake Lively attends The Shallows photocall in Cannes wearing a Giambattista Valli dress”, in “Blake Lively Shines In Marie Claire’s July Issue”, Coincidentally, Lively was accompanied on The Shallows shoot by her recently-born first child and some press highlighted Lively’s post-natal body and breastfeeding regime. See Charlotte Willis, “Blake Lively Flaunts Her Unbelievable Figure while Filming on Lord Howe Island”, November 2015,
[32] For more on this history and debates about the relative influence of these figures in modern Mexico, see Joseph Kroger and Patrizia Granziera, Aztec Goddesses and Christian Madonnas: Images of the Divine Feminine in Mexico (London: Ashgate, 2012).
[33] Finding the Perfect Beach: Lord Howe Island in The Shallows DVD (USA: Sony Pictures 2016).
[34] Shooting in the Shallows in The Shallows DVD (USA: Sony Pictures 2016).
[35] Collet-Serra, however, in How to Build a Shark (in The Shallows DVD; USA: Sony Pictures 2016) describes how he imagined the shark as “her” because female sharks are “bigger” and more “protective”; the production designer also refers to the model shark as “her”.
[36] Upon the rock, Nancy resembles another mythic prototype, the goddess Venus upon her clamshell. For histories of Venus in visual art, see Laurel McKenzie, “Women in Unity: Reimaging the Female Body in Art”, e-tropic: electronic journal of the tropics, 15.1 (2016),
[37] The seagull attracted much publicity and early reports claimed Lively recruited the seagull to the film. Later, its scripted role and the assistance of animal wranglers in training the seagull were publicized. See: ;
[38] Lee-Jane Bennion-Nixon, “We Still Need a Woman for the Job: The Warrior Woman, Feminism and Cinema in the Digital Age”, Senses of Cinema issue 57 (2010),
[39] The Terminator (James Cameron, 1984) is a prototype and cinematic self-surgeries are often performed by men, but there are a number of examples of women performing self-surgeries including in American Horror Story (Brad Falchuk and Ryan Murphy, 2011– ), and, in Australian cinema (with thanks to Peter Pugsley), Inner Demon (Ursula Dobrowska, 2014).
[40] Apart from Jaenada and Calva, the cast includes Diego Espejel, Lazan Corzo, Jose Manual, Trujillo Solas.
[41] See Cinema Papers, November-December, 1975, pp. 202–284. Warm thanks to Adrian Danks for assistance and advice about the truth-status of the information about Queensland.
[42] Jackie, Keast, “‘Aquaman’ to Shoot in Queensland”, IF, December 2016, Keast also reports that the Queensland Premier, Anastasia Palaczuk, “had personally negotiated with Warner Bros … to secure the shoot in Queensland”. Elsewhere, Variety reported that The Shallows will “showcase Queensland’s stunning beaches” (see Patrick Frater, “Sony’s ‘The Shallows’ To Shoot in Australia”, Variety, 30 August, 2015
[43] See Riley Stuart and Donna Harper, “Aquaman Movie Given Permission to Film at Hastings Point, Despite Locals’ Anger”, ABC News, 30 June 2017,
[44] Lesley Speed, “Fishing the Waters of Life: Zane Grey’s White Death, Exploitation Film and the Great Barrier Reef”, Studies in Australasian Cinema 11.1 (2017), pp. 5-17, doi:
[45] Speed, “Fishing”, p. 9.
[46] Staff Writer, “WA’s Boogie Monster Helps to Terrorise Blake Lively in Qld-shot The Shallows”, IF Magazine 2016,
[47] Qtd in Staff Writer, “WA’s Boogie Monster”. Boogie Monster’s website says it is “the first West Australian facility to have worked on a big-budget Hollywood studio film, totaling over AUD$150million at the box office”. See
[48] McGuiness is not mentioned in IF, but is named on the Boogie Monster website. See
[49] See for instance, Keast, “‘Aquaman to Shoot in Queensland,’” for the reported comments by Queensland Premier, Anastasia Palasczuk, and the federal Treasurer, Scott Morrison.
[50] Parliament of Australia. Inquiry into the Australian Film and Television Industry. 2017.
[51] Parliament of Australia. “Standing Committee on Communication and the Arts 13/07/2017 Australian Film and Television Industry.”;query=Id%3A%22committees%2Fcommrep%2F7702ee4f-ff0a-4bff-ab1d-615da0bf539f%2F0001%22.
[52] Parliament of Australia,;query=Id%3A%22committees%2Fcommrep%2F7702ee4f-ff0a-4bff-ab1d-615da0bf539f%2F0001%22.

About the Author

Allison Craven

About the Author

Allison Craven

Allison Craven is Associate Professor of Screen Studies and English at James Cook University in Townsville, Australia. She is the author of Finding Queensland in Australian Cinema: Poetics and Screen Geographies (Anthem Press 2016); and Fairy Tale Interrupted: Feminism, Masculinity, Wonder Cinema (Peter Lang, 2017).View all posts by Allison Craven →