About a quarter of the way through Soul Surfer, a sweet and innocent little girl, who never wanted anything but the chance to rise early so she could surf often, is viciously, violently attacked by a shark. This moment came as a great shock to the audience with whom I saw it, which is a little strange, given that the shock is directly preceded by an underwater shot of a menacing presence approaching the girl’s surfboard from below. The shot is unmistakably cribbed from Jaws, which makes it all the stranger, as the only thing Soul Surfer has in common with that classic fright film is sharks. It certainly isn’t a movie trying to keep you on the edge of your seat. The moment when the girl is attacked might have been better played for what the rest of the movie takes it for: a meeting with fate. Yet director Sean McNamara couldn’t resist giving us the scare, as if the arrival of a shark in any movie just begged for an allusion to Jaws.
For the most part, this is how Soul Surfer works. We are given the director’s approximation (or rather his imitation) of how he feels scenes should look and feel, and very little in the way of originality. If we’re looking at shots of competing surfers on the ocean trying to catch waves, you can bet they’re going to be underscored by pop-punk and play like an X-Games highlights reel. If we’re getting shots of the little girl’s surf-nut family praising God at a beach-front church (the likes of which could only be found in Hawaii), the scene might look suspiciously like a Carrie Underwood concert film.
God and surfing are the two constants here. When the shark claims the left arm of young pro-hopeful Bethany (AnnaSophia Robb), she takes a bit of time to remain despondent, wondering hopelessly how God’s plan for her could involve such deformity. But in a matter of days, and with the help of a youth pastor (Carrie Underwood) who takes her on a humanitarian trip to a tsunami flood-zone in Thailand (set up, by the look of things, solely to provide her with a chance to realize the impact her God-given talents can have on others — this is no joke: she aids the Thai by teaching a traumatized young boy to surf), Bethany summons the courage to get back on the water and compete.
Even given the fact that this whole thing is based on a true story, it’s hard to feel much pity for Bethany about the shark attack. Much of my own apathy has to do with the generally awful movie in which I watched her get attacked, for sure, but even disregarding that, it has to be said: surfers are asking for it. Out there in warm, shallow waters, paddling around on boards that make them look like big fish from below, what do they expect?
Well, if you accept Soul Surfer’s version of Bethany Hamilton’s life, they expect to win back the respect of their peers by overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds to return to, and dominate, the game from which they were written off. And they may expect to get extremely famous and sell their story to Hollywood. Most of which sounds to me like an episode of Touched by an Angel, and given the heavy Jesus-speak that peppers much of Soul Surfer’s dialogue, that’s not an inadequate comparison. Touched by an Angel crossed with the scene in Deep Blue Sea where Samuel L. Jackson is devoured from behind by a giant, leaping shark: that’s a pretty apt description of what watching this movie is like.