All will not end well for the women who want to take cool pics of their vacation to Mexico to put on the ‘gram.
Will they be eaten by sharks or die at the bottom of the sea? This is the conundrum that faces viewers of Johannes Roberts’ latest, 47 Meters Down. Previous work has included mothers shoving their dead children at strange shamans (The Other Side of the Door) and more basic aliens haunting strange warehouses (Storage 24). His move to more, I guess, realistic horror doesn’t sacrifice a second of the dramatic tension these monsters were game to provide. Twenty minutes into 47 Meters Down, we’re in the water. And by the thirty-minute mark, our heroines are safely doomed.
A winsome horror movie pair, Lisa (Mandy Moore) and Kate (Claire Holt) play sisters on vacation in México, as everyone in the movie likes to accent it, though Lisa and Kate might as well be perfect strangers who met the night before on a shared Airbnb accommodation. Where so much of today’s horror pines for seriousness by probing ostensibly serious questions like love, loss, family and other things I don’t care about, it’s relieving to watch a production that could hardly care less. The last shark movie to make serious waves, to my knowledge, was last year’s The Shallows, and, as I remember it, a godawful amount of time was spent going on about the dead mother of Blake Lively’s character.
The most that 47 Meters Down bothers with is elucidating that Kate is the “fun” one and Lisa is not, which is why her unseen boyfriend broke up with her. There’s an absence of nuance here that, in this day and age, feels comical. Later, when they’re 154 feet south of sea level, Lisa turns to Kate, encouragingly, and asks: “What do you think Stuart would say if he could see you now?” Oh, honey.
47 Meters Down is an emporium of these old fixes. From its very start, we have a night of dancing to the cheapest Estonian EDM a tight budget can buy and two handsome locals bringing trouble by offering a good time. Not with them, but with sharks. “What are you going to do, sit by the pool all day long,” one of them, played by Yani Gellman, taunts. There is something interesting here, don’t our exploitative instincts always tell us to go down the beaten path? Sure, it’s a path that every tourist horror movie likes to beat, from Chernobyl Diaries to Scooby Doo, but it gets us out of any kind of tedious prologue, all that shark-or-no-shark that takes up so much time in Jaws.
Ditto this: there is something to be found in the image of two white women lowering themselves into a rusty metal cage in order to be surrounded by sharks, that teases, briefly, as a metaphor for something else. They’re being punished because they want to take cool pictures of themselves; the movie’s most intelligent shot is, correspondingly, a brief two-second close-up of its first shark devouring their camera. Matthew Modine, who plays the local boat captain like a lazy Hemingway in the wrong country, promises they’ll only go down five meters, just a little taste. Has he even seen the title of the movie?
But these sharks, artlessly large and ferocious as they are for the rest of the hour, turn out not to be movie’s main attraction anyway. It’s the rusty cage from whence our heroines were poking these sharks—a conceit, I read, of some sort of low-budget SeaWorld—that crashes to the bottom of the sea, where it pretty much stays for the bulk of the movie. Once down there, Moore and Holt establish a decent routine of getting trapped under things and panicking about them that fondly recalls the movie’s artier numerical twin, fellow countryman Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours.
But arch or nefarious sharks aren’t even to blame for this predicament, just the shoddy workmanship of anything bought on the cheap. Speaking of things done on the cheap, it would have been nice if they gave Roberts a little more money to work on the whole ocean thing. As wincingly eager both Lisa and Kate are to take cool pictures to impress their friends, there’s nothing really there besides the required sharks and, I dunno, I think I spotted one school of fish? Here’s hoping the hype behind 47 Meters Down gets Roberts out of the metric system for good.
Because Roberts knows what to do with a cheap thrill. A late Sixth Sense-rug-pull will alienate some who will doubt its believability but I’m no scuba expert so I chose not to judge. It’s a thrill. Because, beyond sharks and that diminishing oxygen tank that beeps like an iPhone alarm, there are nitrogen bubbles in the blood and, even more nefariously, a real enough thing called nitrogen narcosis which can always strike when you’re enough feet, or meters, down. Roberts uses the whole box of these and the action doesn’t let up a second until the credits roll. Like anyone trapped in a cage under the ocean would know, every second counts.