Written by: Johannes Roberts, Ernest Riera
Directed by: Johannes Roberts
Starring: Mandy Moore, Claire Holt, and Matthew Modine
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
How do you survive the world's greatest predators?
When The Shallows arrived last year, it was a reprieve for shark movie fanatics (shut up, we are legion) who spent five long years waiting for a quality theatrical effort after Shark Night, forced to sift through layers and layers of The Asylum and SyFy's inanity. A year later, Blake Lively’s memorable encounter with a killer shark feels something like a godsend, as its success inspired a last minute change of plans for 47 Meters Down. Originally titled In the Deep, it was so close to going to DTV that I had solicitations for review copies (some of which did slip out into the wild) right before it was announced the film would be retitled and sent to theaters instead. Granted, the film would have been released anyway, but isn’t it kind of nice to look forward to a second killer shark movie hitting theaters in as many years?
Even better, friends, is that I can report that 47 Meters Down has been worth the wait. We have one more shark effort that can be categorized as “respectable”—and not just “well, it’s better than Sharknado” respectable, either. No backhanded compliments to be found here: 47 Meters Down is solid genre filmmaking that exploits its terrific premise for all its potential.
There’s a hint of awareness in its leanness, too, almost as if the filmmakers know what audiences are here for, so they arrive there with haste. Lisa (Mandy Moore) and Kate (Claire Holt) are two sisters on vacation in Mexico, where the former is drowning her sorrows over a recent break-up with her boyfriend who dumped her because she was boring. Insistent on proving him wrong, she goes and parties all night long with a couple of guys who talk her and Kate into going cage diving. Sure, Lisa has reservations because she’s seen those news stories about tourists going on shady, off-the-radar attractions and never returning, but she’s not going to let that stop her from proving she’s not basic. Of course, she gets more than she bargained for when the cage tears from the ship’s wench, plunging to the titular depths and leaving Kate and Lisa stranded in shark-infested waters.
Obviously, this one has the same general premise as The Shallows, at least in the sense that strands some characters in a harrowing situation involving sharks, leaving audiences to wonder just how in the hell they’ll survive. And even though I know this film was in production around the same time as The Shallows, I like to imagine its filmmakers taking a gander at that premise and asking someone to hold their beer. If Blake Lively’s situation was vexing, then this one feels like an impossible nightmare, one that sees two sisters battling multiple elements to survive. For the most part, Lively’s character didn’t have to worry about simply breathing; for Kate and Lisa, it’s actually their most pressing concern. Forget the sharks for a moment: these two are stuck on the bottom of the ocean with a limited air supply, a conceit that injects the film with a palpable immediacy.
From the moment these two land with a thud, they’re faced with multiple obstacles to surmount and little time to do so. Johannes Roberts and co-writer Ernest Riera script multiple, escalating complications to an already impossible situation: first, the broken wrench has sealed them in the cage, necessitating a resource escape so one of the sisters can swim far enough up to pick up a signal and communicate with the boat that lowered them in. One of the on-board divers is supposed to swim down to attach another wench but meets with trouble along the way. Simply swimming to the surface isn’t possible without suffering from the bends. Plus, you know, they’re surrounded by several 20-foot sharks since the goofs on the boat decided to unload a whole bucket of chum for optimal sightseeing purposes.
Some questionable character decisions aside, 47 Meters Plays it smart. While I’m not about to ensure it would hold up to scientific scrutiny, some care has been taken to ground it and make it believable. Characters aren’t just able to miraculously navigate these murky waters without losing their bearings, nor do you expect these two sisters to suddenly engage in superhuman feats to overcome the depths and the beasts lurking within. Pluckiness and resourcefulness can only get them so far since they’re forced to rely on help from above that may or may not even be coming. Each little incident—be it securing a new oxygen tank or wandering out to meet a diver carrying a flashlight—is loaded with dread and tension, if only because there’s an overwhelming sense of helplessness and entrapment.
It’s here that the move to a theatrical release reveals its most obvious benefits. I’m sure it would play fine at home on TV, but 47 Meters Down really thrives on a huge, engrossing screen that allows you to take in the hopelessness of this environment. Depending on the sequence, the ocean either feels claustrophobic or terrifying in its utter vastness; at a certain point no appealing options present themselves, as they’re forced to either wait out being trapped on the ocean floor or risk swimming right through the sharks’ (which are brought to life with convincing CGI, by the way—praise be) territory. Nothing but the ocean stretches out, and viewers are submerged alongside the sisters without being afforded so much as a glimpse of the surface for most of the film. Granted, no one in their right mind would ever find themselves in such a precarious situation, but watching it play out does coax a sense of horrified awe: “just how in the hell are these two ever going to make it out alive?” you wonder as complications continue to mount, adding to the already potent tension.
Whether or not you’re worried all that much for the two characters is debatable. Calling them paper thin is being charitable and asks you to imagine the absolute thinnest sheet of paper possible. Lisa mostly exists as a bundle of desperation seeking a man’s validation, while Kate is the cool, younger sibling who always got all the guys. They’re not in competition, Kate insists during one of the film’s rare character moments that ostensibly exists to add the slightest bit of dimension to these two. It doesn’t really add even the modicum of depth boasted by their analogue in The Shallows, but there’s the faintest of attempts there. Without resorting to the excuse that nobody is here to invest deeply into characters in a killer shark movie (it certainly helps to up the stakes), I’ll insist that there’s just enough here, if only because you’re being asked to root for America’s Sweetheart Mandy Moore in a battle against nature, a premise that was good enough to leave me wincing and grimacing at every gnarly wound or discouraging turn of events she encounters.
Some late plot shenanigans (that I will totally allow since it allows for more wild splatter) aside, 47 Meters Down isn’t out to thrill in exactly the same manner The Shallows did. Where Jaume Collet-Serra injected that film with a slightly cheeky, pulpy verve, Roberts plays things a bit straighter, opting for a more realistic, minimalist approach. It’s more Open Water than it is Shark Night, and that’s fine—for every rollicking A-Side like The Shallows, we perhaps deserve a more restrained, serious B-side like 47 Meters Down. Certainly, we shark enthusiasts deserve something that passes as decent and presentable for theatrical release. I realize that is a low, low bar to clear, and this one does with ease, hopefully in the pursuit of finding a big enough audience to make this Woman vs. Shark showdown an annual (or at least bi-annual) summer tradition.* I’m not sure who might follow the path formed by Blake Livey and Mandy Moore, but I hope there’s a slew of actresses waiting.
*In a perfect world, The Shallows would just become an anthology pitting different isolated women against various aquatic beasts. Or maybe just Blake Lively every time out. I’m not picky.
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