“Trust me, once you go down there, you won’t want to go back up.”
They were only meant to go five meters down. Inside their rocking, rusty, rickety metal enclosure, in the crisp blue Mexican ocean, vacationing sisters Lisa (Mandy Moore) and Kate (Claire Holt) hope to live their lives to the fullest by cage diving with the sharks. It’s a decision not made easily by Lisa. Recently dumped, Lisa spends her would-be romantic vacation sulking and self-pitying. Her more outgoing, adventurous sister, however, will not let Lisa spend her time in the beautiful Mexican sun being sad and miserable. Upon visiting the locals in the night club scene, Lisa and Kate meet a pair of cute boys who promise them the time of their lives with the perilous activity. It’s dangerous, nerve-wracking and potentially unsafe, but think of the photos! How jealous Lisa’s boyfriend will be. He’ll never get over it. So Lisa agrees, believing everything will be some good, heart-pounding fun. That’s when things take a turn for the absolute worse.
It’s shortly after they go down below in their tawny, wobbly cage when the frail cord snaps and plunges them straight towards the depths of the ocean. Soon, they’re 20 meters, 30 meters, 40 meters below the sea until they hit the very bottom: 47 meters down. And that’s when the challenges abound in 47 Meters Down, a taut, sharply edited, surprisingly competent (at least, as far as these things go…) enclosed underwater thriller that serves a refreshingly airtight, straightforward wave of genre B-movie filmmaking. Their communication with the boat is fleeting. Their air supply is limited. Also, the faster they breathe, the faster they use up their air. Their unsteady cage is barracked under the crane we previously tied them to the ship. Oh yeah, and did I mention there are sharks everywhere? It doesn’t help that they can smell fear.
Director Johannes Roberts has no interest in reinventing the formula. For better or worse, 47 Meters Down isn’t the least bit subversive or revolutionary. It’s simply a brisk, adept, suspense-ridden thriller, and that’s all it needed to be. The premise is good enough and terrifying enough to be effective in its own right. Despite the wonky dialogue and the overstretched third act, written by Roberts and Ernest Riera, Roberts’ skillful hand as a filmmaker, the commendably dedicated performances from Moore and Holt, the richly unsettling score by Tomandandy and the unexpectedly fluid cinematography by Mark Silk captivate you and unwind you through all the terror-ridden sunken ordeals. It’s not going to change shark movies as we know them. It’s not the next Jaws, despite what it’s marketing suggests. But it’s sharp enough and effective enough to keep you unnerved throughout. That’s more than enough to keep you satisfied.
The story behind 47 Meters Down is a curious oddity, especially in our streaming-friendly world. Initially scheduled to be released exclusively on DVD and VOD in August 2016 under Dimension Films, 47 Meters Down was later bought by Entertainment Films and rescheduled to be screened in theaters the following summer. In an age where Netflix and other online platforms are working hard to eliminate the theatergoing experience from the equation, it’s commendable for Entertainment Films to have faith, take a risk and give Roberts’ movie the theatrical experience that it was robbed of initially. And to its credit, 47 Meters Down rewards the theater experience pretty well — especially as the darkness of the theater makes the lurking threats within the underwater enclosure seem all the more harrowing and daunting.
Though, ironically, if one were to wait until Netflix snatched it up and threw it onto their site, you would still likely get as much out of the experience, while also affording the luxury of skipping through some of the more stilted character interactions that boggle down the first act. That’s not to suggest that the opening hinders 47 Meters Down so much as it makes you antsy for the hungry sharks to get into the equation, much like last year’s similarly engaging, if rather leaden at first, The Shallows. Additionally, one can’t help but wonder what Roberts could’ve done with an R rating instead of its restrictive PG-13. Wisely, Roberts uses his limitations to build up dread and tension in lieu of excessive bloodshed, yet you can often see where 47 Meters Down could’ve been all the more frightening if it didn’t have to cut away so abruptly from the violence and potential gore. It’s ultimately a minor complaint in the end, but one that would’ve — as far as this critic can tell, at least — made the movie all the more chilling and cutting. But if it works, who should complain about such minutiae details? Like the main characters, Roberts knows how to work against his limitations, and his craftsmanship and cunning talent are what brought it to the big screen.
In a summer filled with disappointing sequels and creatively bankrupt reboots and franchise builders, 47 Meters Down is the splash of invigoration that moviegoers were desperately craving. Commendably well-made, well-acted and well-filmed, Roberts’ latest film is an exciting and enjoyably slight summer moviegoing diversion, one that knows when to dive in and when to swim out. It floats without bloat, and it respects its elders enough to give a few knowing winks to a gamely audience that likes to see sharks nibble at unsuspecting tourists, while also appropriately terrorizing those unsuspecting others who nervously watch our lead characters diligently get out of every stumbling block from the comfort of their quivering sleeves. It’s simple-but-exhilarating filmmaking, and I’m glad I got to see it on the beautiful big screen.