47 Meters Down is a shark movie—if shark movie is a genre. No, not the campy, so-good-they’re-bad shark movies we’ve been getting for a decade and a half now [ask anyone I know—my favorite of these is Shark Attack 3—the crème de la crème of bad shark movies], but true to the roots, psychological thriller shark movies. There aren’t many of them; it’s less a genre, more a small family, all closely related. Last year saw the family grow by one, with the addition of The Shallows, a film that closely mirrors the raw plot of 47 Meters Down. Man versus beast. Man stranded in ocean. Time is short. Decisions must be made and action taken. In forerunners to this release, I’ve joked that 47 Meters Down is probably a knockoff from the same script. It may very well be—the internet seems to think that the original title of The Shallows script was In the Deep, and that was the title that 47 Meters Down had when it was about to go straight to video last summer (it actually did, briefly—you may even be able to see the film without shelling out theater rates). The family was sired, obviously, granddaddy Jaws. It began there, and then things got out of hand with subsequent sequels, genetically enhanced, but still serious, turns (Deep Blue Sea) and then flat out ridiculous (Sharknado). But that true family is small. 47 Meters Down deserves to be a member.
47 Meters Down
Director: Johannes Robert
Release Date: June 16, 2016
By and large, director Johannes Robert managed this film masterfully. Little is wasted, and most stays true to form. The opening title sequence of a dark, ominous underwater scene proves to be the inside of a swimming pool. And one girl overturns another on a raft, causing a glass of wine to hit water and spread in pure imitation of blood. It’s one of the few times the director gets too heavyhanded: we know it’s a shark movie; no portent necessary.
It’s then that we’re introduced to sisters Lisa (Mandy Moore) and Kate (Claire Holt). Lisa’s the stick in the mud whose boyfriend has left her because she’s too boring, while Kate’s the sort to tell her sister to get over it by banging the first bar fly she can find their side of the border in Mexico. When said bar fly recommends the sisters go cage diving with great white sharks, our story is set in motion.
Writer Anthony Jaswinski admits the film follows the 127 Hours format—he means that you’re predominantly with one (or in this case, two) character for the duration, after some early introductions. But the similarities don’t end there; the format also calls for a sticky situation to keep your character alone, and we’re quickly provided one when the cage the girls go diving in proves to be of less than reliable quality and ends up on the ocean’s floor.
That’s the premise. The cage is separated from boat. There are hungry, 25-foot sharks in the water. And our sisters are stuck in said cage with limited air supply. The film’s stars have said that this is not just a shark movie; it’s more than that. It’s a movie about being stuck at sea. This is true. It’s not just a shark movie; it’s really a movie that draws on and capitalizes on the many primal fears inherent in mankind: fear of being adrift at sea; fear of being adrift and immersed at sea; fear of the unknown (either under the water, or in the dark); fear of drowning; fear or suffocation; fear of being trapped; the fear of the immensity of everything else versus your own insignificance; fear of being at the mercy of forces greater than you; fear of being eaten alive. Where The Shallows began, 47 Meters Down continues, and ups the ante, allowing murphy’s law to dictate events. In an underwater cage surrounded by massive sharks? The cage will fail and leave you stranded. Have air tanks? Your supply is low. Have radios in rebreathers? You will be out of range. Reconnect the cage to a winch? The cable will fail. Get extra air tanks? You will face sharks.
You get the idea. It’s a litany of what can go wrong, will go wrong, to the point where it borders on association with torture porn. These girls cannot catch a break, up until the film’s conclusion. And maybe not even then.
The twists and turns deserve to remain in tact, in the dark, for you to enjoy unspoiled. But what can safely be said is that 47 Meters Down plays on your worst fears and delivers psychological terror. I had to detach myself to the ninth degree to watch it passively in order to write about it now. But if you allow yourself to be immersed in the dark of the theater, you’ll find yourself helplessly dragged in the film’s jaws, kicking and screaming, for the duration. The emotions are real; both Moore and Hoult spent more time underwater filming than is normal, and it reads. Robert directed them from above the water’s surface and had underwater crew on a different radio channel so that only he could communicate with the girls. They got a small taste of what they portrayed, and this was captured wonderfully and transcribed expertly.
While, as noted, this is a shark film, the director must know the material well; where other films would get lost in the violence, Robert uses tension to perfection, and deaths, when they come, are impactful, but not focused on, and the tension is instantly restrung, meaning that you’re never quite off the hook. With few miscues—an unnecessary camera spin in one ascending shott--the film succeeds independently of the its sister film from 2016—even if you’ve seen The Shallows, you should still see 47 Meters Down.