Back in the summer of 2016, Johannes Roberts’ 47 Meters Down readied itself for a guppy-sized VOD release (renamed In The Deep). Then, without warning, his bottom-feeding nightmare was yanked from distribution. Why? Because Byron Allen’s Entertainment Studios purchased the rights and organized a 2017 theatrical campaign through Freestyle Releasing.
Jaume Collet-Serra’s The Shallows proved that damsels-in-aquatic-distress could turn a profit, so why not gamble on 47 Meters Down? Two girls, one cage. Underwater anxiety flashes some pretty ferocious chompers when Roberts’ beasts are in peak aggression mode, benefiting from cinema screens versus home streaming. Kudos on the power-play, Mr. Allen. Maybe some more studios can start replicating your courage?
Mandy Moore and Claire Holt star as vacationing sisters, Lisa and Kate. The two American gals search for relaxation in Mexico, until Lisa confesses her boyfriend split before the getaway. This flips Kate’s party switch from “Maybe” to “Hell Yeah,” and before long, the duo are being convinced by locals to go shark diving. Crazy idea, right? Maybe for stick-in-the-mud Lisa, but not new, fun Lisa!
They meet Captain Taylor (Matthew Modine) and set out for a personal introduction to some Great White sharks. After the girls’ new crushes go first, Lisa and Claire hop into a rusty cage that dangles off a rickety winch. The view is spectacular, but then the worst happens – Captain Taylor’s winch malfunctions. Lisa watches in horror as the busted cage hurdles downward until hitting bedrock at 47 meters, stranding its inhabitants with little chance of survival.
Luckily, Roberts knows why you’re watching – shark attacks, near-death experiences and oceanic scenery. Opening scenes briefly delve into Lisa’s self-image issues, and quickly speed through establishing relationships that lead to Captain Taylor’s appearance. This is good, because the first fifteen-or-so minutes are horridly generic, filled with crying exes and preachy techno songs about finding yourself. 47 Meters Down is essentially circling its prey – you, the audience – in these moments, before striking with disastrous intent. I see you, cheeky visual gag where Lisa spills her blood-red cocktail into a shimmering resort pool. Foreshadowing by way of wasteful alcoholic beverage!
Then, danger hits. First in obvious tipoffs – Taylor’s dilapidated rig, auburn rust everywhere – then in palpable fear. As the iron box submerges recklessly, hurdling downward while the meter counter spins out of control, it’s like a rollercoaster drop that steals your breath. When sharks torpedo forward, fear paralyzes. Diving tanks leak breathable air, darkness surrounds, apex predators flex their muscles (or, like, the shark equivalent of hulking out) – Roberts captures the horror of single-setting isolation with against-all-odds creature defense. A summation of fear that’ll leave audiences gasping for air, ripped and torn by tension that heightens paranoia to compromising levels of discomfort.
As Lisa ascends upwards, kicking her legs through a flare-lit gauntlet of charging Great Whites, Roberts is at his best – if belief can be suspended. You’ll have to buy into a pack of sharks who fail repeatedly to munch their human-sized snack, always grazing by at the last possible second. Same goes for decision-making, which is influenced by circumstance at its best, and shout-at-the-screen confounding at its worst. “Let me send my only deckhand into shark-infested waters with a flashlight to help you,” says Captain Taylor. “Let me emerge from safety to see if that shark is still circling overhead,” says one of the sisters. Fear and survival force illogical human responses, but there’s a reason why fellow critics are citing character actions as an unbelievable domino-effect of bad decisions.
If you can stomach these “lapses in logic,” you’ll be able to appreciate the cavernous abyss Roberts creates. Death looms, but atmosphere deals a much heavier blow than finality. Sharks aren’t kept in view 24/7, mainly because Lisa can barely see twenty feet ahead. As she swims through the enveloping darkness that only accentuates her depth, cinematographer Mark Silk circles her body to emphasize vulnerability. Air bubbles permeate silence, establishing fear that cannot be replicated by common human means. Dash to the surface and you suffer “The Bends” (decompression sickness), swim openly for too long and you’re devoured, switch oxygen tanks underwater and nitrogen can make you hallucinate – doom, I tells ya. Doom is inescapable, and we’re dragged down screaming along with Lisa and Kate.
In the heat of survival, Moore and co-star Claire Holt are both petrified and proactive. Calm must be achieved to conserve air, but panic can’t be avoid as time expires. Moore is much better at screaming, freaking out and twisting her body in an attempt to defend all angles. Holt is more the “don’t worry” character, always ensuring that Captain Taylor will conclude their rescue any minute. When it counts, Moore accepts the worst and becomes a victim whose options force heroic action. When it doesn’t, tearful confessions and weakly constructed emotional motivators push towards the real meat of Roberts’ vision. Fine enough for the task at hand, but lacking a bit of empathy.
47 Meters Down navigates choppy waters, but ultimately manages to deliver some prime summer-time screams. Johannes Roberts takes many of the staples of spacebound horror and drenches them in chilling density. Whether you’re leagues deep or floating through space, no one can hear you scream. Many of the same rules apply, and as expected, the addition of hungry sharks evokes a constant state of “OH HELLLLLLL NO” paranoia. Animation looks fine, generics dissipate once things go from “tourist trap” to “royally f*&ked” and performances heavily project sharkbait dread (although I SOOOO wanted that The Descent ending). This may not be Hollywood’s next big catch, but it’s still worth a trophy mount!
47 Meters Down practically writes itself as far as tension goes, but that doesn't mean a few killer screams can't go above and beyond.