47 Meters Down (2017)

JUNE 18, 2017


If it were up to me (and nothing ever is, for the record), Universal would re-release Jaws every other summer, in honor of it not only being the original summer blockbuster that paved the way for everything else currently playing at the multiplex but also of it being JAWS, goddammit. On the other summers, some studio would release a new sharksploitation movie like 47 Meters Down, which of course owes some of its existence to Spielberg's classic, but also provides some thrills on its own accord and, unlike the comic book/franchise wannabe films clogging the other screens, is refreshingly simple for a summer movie. When even the low-budget horror films can't help but be bogged down in world building (Annabelle 2 has a clunky setup for the upcoming Nun spinoff), there's something kind of novel about the idea that I'll never need to remember plot points or characters from this movie ever again, as there won't be a "48" Meters Down.

Well, I mean, there probably would be if the movie was a giant smash, but like last year's The Shallows and several others before it (including Jaws, but no one was smart enough to prevent three sequels), it's an open and shut story, and a very simple one. Our heroines (sisters played by Claire Holt and Mandy Moore, who couldn't look less like sisters if they tried and honestly wasn't a necessary plot point - they could have just been besties) are on a cage-diving jaunt, where they don scuba gear and are lowered into the water to see some sharks up close, when the line breaks and their cage sinks... you guessed it, 47 meters down, to the bottom of the ocean floor (for you non-metric folk, that's about 150 feet). From then on it's a more or less real-time account of them trying to figure out how to survive when their oxygen tanks are running out and communication with their boat requires dangerous trips outside the relative safety of their cage, as the sharks continue circling the area.

So basically it's in the vein of Frozen or Thirst, as our heroes try to survive the elements as well as a natural predator doing its thing (as opposed to a human murderer and/or a "monster" like Deep Blue Sea's super-intelligent sharks), inviting the audience to play along with "Why don't they try ______?" questions that are usually answered by the film itself. For example, you might wonder why they don't just swim for the surface, as 150 feet isn't THAT far and the sharks can be warded off with flares and the like. Well, since they dropped so far, they're now at risk of getting nitrogen bubbles in their brain (known as "the bends") if they don't depressurize properly, which requires them to ascend a bit and then wait five minutes for their body to adjust before ascending again (and then stopping again). By keeping the situation simple and also unquestionably dangerous (as anyone can be afraid of sharks and also running out of air), it also restricts the amount of armchair quarterbacking the audience can reasonably bother with, unlike say Frozen, where everyone was pretty sure THEY could survive jumping off the chair and snowboarding away from the wolves. OK, maybe you could do that, somehow - but can you stop nitrogen bubbles from invading your brain, genius?

At its best, the movie offers terrific thrills that you don't often see in these shark movies. Folks tend to be on boats or some other structures (such as the rock in The Shallows), i.e. above the water, but our heroes are submerged for the bulk of the film, and director Johannes Roberts ties one hand behind his back by refusing to cut to the boat on the surface. Even when the girls make contact with their boat (captained by Matthew Modine in a role that amounts to a cameo) Roberts keeps his cameras underwater as well, allowing us to wonder if Modine and his mates are truly trying to save them or if they're leaving them behind on purpose for one reason or another. It's a fun little trick; the film takes place in Mexico and our protagonists are vacationing Americans, so decades of horror-watching has us trained to believe that the "locals" are out to rob and/or rape and/or kill them since no one can travel in a horror movie without running afoul of scary foreigners. It's really not until the last few minutes of the film that we know if they're villains or not, making a solid way to add tension to the proceedings without really doing much of anything.

It's a shame, then, that the horrendous dialogue keeps sinking the movie's chances of being a classic example of the sub-genre. When everyone shuts up and tries to carry out some life-saving action that requires considerable risk (like when Holt gets out of the cage by sliding between the bars - which requires her to take her oxygen tank/mask off first), the movie works like gangbusters, and I kept cackling at every new setback (personal favorite: when Moore's character pulls on a lodged speargun and manages to shoot herself with it - not only causing an injury but giving the sharks fresh blood to smell). But whenever things settle down and the girls chat, it's borderline painful to listen to their generic, half-realized backstories. Apparently Moore's boyfriend just left her before the trip began (he was supposed to join, if I'm understanding correctly) because she's pretty boring, so part of the reason she's taking the trip at all is because she wants to post pictures that proves she can be fun and take risks. Since we never met the guy I don't know why we should care much if she manages to win him back with her new Facebook profile photo, and the dialogue itself is cringeworthy, doing it no favors. Somehow Blake Lively talking to a seagull was more natural than anything these two alleged sisters manage to say to each other. There is also a poorly implemented bit of foreshadowing that spoils a minor twist about the finale (which recalls the original ending of another movie featuring women who are trapped below the surface), though there is some fun in trying to figure out when that particular plot point came into play.

It also felt strangely held back at times, as if it was originally an R rating and someone cut it back to PG-13 at the 11th hour. There are two attack scenes that are borderline incoherent, as if they were trying to avoid showing shark-munch action, and a later very serious injury is noticeably cut around as much as possible. There is also a lone F-bomb relatively early in the movie; I know you're always allowed one in a PG-13 but having it come so early seems to suggest there could have been more at some point (because in a movie where you're trapped with sharks, you're likely to say OH FUCK! or WE'RE FUCKED!, but they don't - Moore just says it casually in one of the first scenes, saying "I fucked up" re: her relationship). I poked around and couldn't find any evidence of this being the case, so perhaps it was designed for PG-13 and they were being overly cautious? Either way, it felt like the movie was trying to avoid the B-movie carnage were showed up to see. Roberts' other films (including the HMAD book-worthy The Expelled) were all rated R, and I honestly didn't realize this one wasn't following suit until I checked real quick during a bathroom trip (it was like 90+ on Sunday so I was chugging water), so now I can't help but wonder if it'd be a better film if he was in a position to indulge.

But look: there's Jaws, and then there are the other shark movies, and among them, this ends up somewhere in the middle of the pack. It lacks the maniacal flourishes Jaume Collet-Serra brought to The Shallows, but it's a lot better than your average Syfy thing (and, not that it's a high bar, but it's better than two of the actual Jaws sequels), and I'm glad it got a big-screen release after it was nearly sent direct to DVD/VOD last summer. It's not a movie you'd probably want to watch over and over, but for the one time you DO watch, the big screen is the place to do it, and honestly if it went VOD I probably never would have seen it unless I had to for work. The sharks look good (for the record, this is likely the lowest budgeted movie you'll see in a multiplex all year) and the pacing is nearly breakneck at times, as they're pretty much screwed within minutes of going into the water (itself a scene that occurs before the 20 minute mark). It might feel a bit handicapped at times, but it got the job done and scratched my shark movie itch until I have time for Chief Brody and his pals again.

What say you?


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