Shark films are about as common as the bristlemouth fish, and there are thousands of trillions of those swimming in the world’s oceans. Nevertheless, some decent films — such as last year’s “The Shallows” — don’t belong in cinematic chum buckets. Somewhat surprisingly, Johannes Roberts’ “47 Meters Down” proves to be one of those films. It’s not “Jaws,” but as a survival horror film, its competent thrills should tide us over until the hotly anticipated (if fictitious) “Jaws 19.”
“47 Meters Down” starts when sisters Lisa (Mandy Moore) and Kate (Claire Holt) decide — in brazen rebellion against logic and complete disregard for self-preservation — to spice up their vacation by going cage diving via a shady business recommended by two dreamy men they met on the previous night. The sisters’ adventure literally descends into danger as their cage — prehistoric, given the amount of rust on it — plunges, with them in it, to the bottom of shark-infested waters. Fish might be friends, but humans are definitely food.
The film has its merits, but it’s worth mentioning that “47 Meters Down” was originally intended to be a straight-to-video release. That is, until “The Shallows” pulled in decent box office numbers, and so its DVD-destined counterpart received a theatrical run.
That being said, the characters of “47 Meters Down” exceedingly feel like ones populating a B-movie that you’d find on a shelf next to “Jersey Shore Shark Attack.” Case in point, Lisa’s primary motivation for cage diving is to impress her ex-boyfriend. “You’re not gonna make Stuart jealous with photos of a boat’s bathroom,” says Kate as she goads on her hesitant sister — who openly admits to not having scuba diving certification. Kate’s enabling of the inexperienced Lisa puts them both in grave danger, rendering her instantly unlikable.
Despite hosting characters that make Derek Zoolander seem like Sherlock Holmes, “47 Meters Down” remains enjoyable. Dumb characters — the ones that willingly enter basements of certain death armed only with their verve and a screenwriter’s goodwill — are a horror movie trope, one that becomes fun to indulge in if the film’s thrills are executed just right.
Luckily, “47 Meters Down” pulls off its scares by establishing rules that must be obeyed: Don’t race to the water’s surface, or you’ll get the bends and die. Swim close to the ocean floor, or a shark will chomp you from below and you’ll die. Book legitimate, conservation-conscious ecotourism excursions through your hotel or travel agency, or you’ll disrupt the health of an ecosystem, get trapped on the ocean floor and, you guessed it, die. The film becomes exciting when Lisa and Kate veer toward breaking these rules, as the audience hopes that they’ll survive the repercussions of their choices.
The film also uses its effective visuals to elicit scares, which is impressive, given that most horror films are happy to rely on basic jump scares and loud noises for the majority of their runtimes. In one scene, a character gets lost in open waters; the camera holds onto a shot of nothingness that stretches for miles in every direction, and the vastness of the ocean — not the CGI sharks — is what becomes truly terrifying. Make no mistake, this film has its share of jump scares and loud noises, but it also leverages its cinematography to create genuine tension.
“47 Meters Down” further distinguishes itself from other shark films with a particularly daring narrative move, one that will at least please — if not completely floor — even the most cynical viewer. If you plan on seeing this film, stay as far away from spoilers as you would a 20-foot-long great white, or “Jersey Shore Shark Attack.”
Ultimately, “47 Meters Down” won’t be in anybody’s Top 10 lists by the end of the year, and it probably won’t even crack the Top 20. Still, this film blows other genre fare currently in theaters (looking at you, “The Mummy”), ahem, out of the water.
Harrison Tunggal covers film. Contact him at [email protected].