7.5 out of 10
Directed by Johannes Roberts
The Shallows was surprisingly successful, which may have opened the floodgates (pun intended) for more B-movie riffs off of Jaws, but 47 Meters Down isn’t as glossy or as glamorous as last year’s film. What it does have going for it is an effective tightening of the screws, and while director Johannes Roberts doesn’t reinvent the wheel, he shows a sturdy skill in tension and claustrophobia. These exercises in concept don’t always work, but screenwriters Roberts and Ernest Riera have a fun sense of pacing, and they seem to enjoy painting themselves into a corner just to see how they can get out of it. That murky darkness of the water, the use of sound and special effects, and the performances from Mandy Moore and Claire Holt all come together in notable ways, making 47 Meters Down better than expected.
Sure, there are moments of silliness and scenes that strain credulity, but that’s all part of the fun, and most audiences of this kind of thrill ride wouldn’t have it any other way. It helps that the two centerpieces of the film, Lisa (Moore) and Kate (Holt), are likable and earnest. Lisa has just suffered a break-up, and she and her sister Kate are on vacation in Mexico to try to get a fresh start. Lisa’s boyfriend called her “boring,” which makes it easier for Kate to convince Lisa to take more risks; specifically to go underwater in a steel cage to watch great white sharks. They charter a boat with some local boys, and Captain Taylor (Matthew Modine) assures Lisa that it’s completely safe, even though it certainly looks like the boat and the cage have seen better days, and the crew have overchummed the water to the point that there are more sharks than expected in the water. But Lisa’s misgivings are correct – the cable breaks, plunging Lisa and Kate 47 meters below in shark-infested waters.
The best aspects of the film are in its insistence of reality (even in a horror movie situation). Lisa and Kate can’t simply escape the cage and swim up; they are so far below that to attempt to surface puts them at risk of decompression sickness. If they rise too fast, they could die, and if they rise too slowly, the sharks could eat them. They only have enough air to last an hour under ideal circumstances, but these frightened swimmers are breathing too fast and too deep, and their gauges are counting down to the point where they will run out of air. The economy of the script, along with Roberts’ staying close to the actors, make for a nice sense of intensity and claustrophobia. Since we can only see a foot or two in front of us, the pitch blackness of the water could hide anything – a rescuer, or more likely, a great white shark or two.
47 Meters Down is strongest in the middle, and Roberts sustains an energy that becomes infectious. I don’t mind saying that I gripped the sides of my seat a couple of times. The sharks are just as CGI as the shark in The Shallows, but Roberts uses them to maximum effect, not overplaying his hand and saving the jump scares for when they really count. No red herrings, either – the scares are consistent and effective. When the sharks appear, they are scary, menacing, and a genuine threat.
Unfortunately, there are a few moments where subtlety would have worked far better than the obvious plays the script makes. There is a sequence in the third act that any savvy audience member will see coming a mile off. The film establishes certain rules early on, and then doesn’t trust the audience to remember those rules a bit too often, especially when the air gauges are concerned. But Mandy Moore and Claire Holt play their roles well; they are smart, love each other, and we can’t help but like them, so when the scares come we are in their corner. Roberts makes the most of the film’s 88 minutes, and while there is a little padding, 47 Meters Down mostly moves at a brisk, constant pace.
I kept thinking after the movie was over that Matthew Modine’s charter oat company is likely to be sued to kingdom come at the end of the day, but other than that 47 Meters Down sticks the landing and doesn’t cheat the audience. It could have, and even at the end there seemed to be some vocal members of the audience who perhaps wanted more than what they got. But for much of 47 Meters Down, Johannes Roberts manages to build the ferocity and excitement to unexpected levels. Audiences may find much to like and to be thrilled at with this movie, and while it never breaks beyond its B-movie boundaries, 47 Meters Down at least knows what it wants to do and succeeds in doing it for much of its runtime. That’s better than a lot of other summer movies this year. For that at least, it earns respect.