Be it the explosive finale of Jaws, the super-powered sea beasts of Deep Blue Sea, or the weather-whipped maneaters of Sharknado, the killer shark subgenre is one rife with exaggeration and outrageousness. And generally, I—an avid Shark Week watcher—wouldn’t have it any other way. I know that these movies are willfully overhyping sharks’ predator powers, their thirst for human blood, and their ravenous desire for bikini-clad beach babes. But the spectacle and silliness nonetheless speaks to a deep and primal fear mankind harbors over the vast unknowable ocean, and the deadly beasts that lurk in its murky depths. It’s little wonder that even films like the critically lauded In The Shallows ditches its authentic approach for a ludicrous and showy finale. But English writer/director Johannes Roberts dares to do something truly different with the harrowing horror-thriller 47 Meters Down.
Mandy Moore and Claire Holt star as sisters Lisa and Kate, who are bonding and healing from heartbreak on a vacation in Mexico. When two handsome locals offer them a wild time in a fisherman’s shark cage, the American tourists consider getting up close and personal with some Great Whites. While the adventurous Kate (Holt) is ready to dive in straightaway, Lisa (Moore) is more reluctant, fretting that she doesn’t have the scuba experience of her sister. But despite the sketchy vibes of the captain (Matthew Modine because why not!?), the illegal chumming of the water, and the deep rust on the rigging and cage, the girls figure five meters down for twenty minutes isn’t that big a risk. But when the rigging breaks, the cage sinks like stone straight to the bottom, 47 meters down (about 154 feet).
Shaken, scared, and running out of air, the sisters weigh their options. Do they stay in the cage where it’s safe but risk suffocating before rescue might arrive? Or try to save themselves by swimming to the surface through 15 stories of shark infested waters, having to take 5-minute breaks in open water to avoid getting the brain-breaking bends?
Luckily, their masks have radios that allow them to communicate with each other underwater. But the boat is out of range of the radios, so they’d have to leave the cage to alert the captain and crew that they are alive. Leaving the cage leaves them defenseless against sharks, that have not only speed but also murky waters to their advantage. Again and again, Kate and Lisa are given only bad options to survive, most of which are: leave the safety of the cage to retrieve a flashlight, a lifeline, a spare tank of oxygen. And every time, the tension mounts as sharks circle, lunge and expose jagged jaws of teeth, apathetic to their petty human feelings, but perfect for ripping through soft human flesh.
The script by Roberts and Ernest Riera is swift and efficient, setting up enough about the sisters that you like them and understand their whimsy and need for a bit of adventure, even as you shake your head as they shake off red flags. We’re rooted to them, and trapped with them as this thriller drops us to the bottom of the ocean. There, Roberts and Riera ruthlessly unravel one survival plan after another, with each failed attempt tweaking tension for a finale that is nail-biting, scream-jerking, and will leave audiences ragged and breathless.
Roberts gives us sharks that are just sharks, trusting that they—with their size, teeth, hunger, and indifference to human suffering—are terrifying as is. And they are! As many horror films as I happily munch popcorn to, this one had me curled into a ball, pulling my notebook over my eyes because the suspense of a second act sequence was more than I could bear. A sister is swimming outside the cage in a rescue effort. The shot is POV, swooping around the dark water, which only offers shades of grey with the occasional flicker of some tiny critter. The shot searches and searches, and you know it will find a shark. But WHEN?!
The waiting was killing me. I remember no music. I remember no sounds. I remember only floating in the sustained, unforgiving fear of that moment, closing my eyes in hopes a musical sting would save me the scare. But when I gave up on audio cues and dared to peek over my notebook, that’s when the Great White emerged, jaws wide rushing toward the camera, toward the sister, toward me! I screamed so loud I felt my chest burn inside me. I panted as the harried heroine dodged to safety, for now. I felt that acute embarrassment when you’ve unreservedly lost your cool in a critics’ screening, and can hear others giggling over your terror. I regret nothing.
47 Meters Down is uniquely terrifying, offering an authentic exploration of a nightmare scenario, treating sharks as keen predators, but not evil villains. Still, this fantastic shark flick has some frustrating flaws. As much as the sisters discuss the need to conserve oxygen, they get confoundingly chatty throughout the second act, layering in obvious exposition, and narrating their every move. It might be meant for viewer clarity, but it does deflate the suspense and stumble a bit into cheesiness. My other complaint is just that the film seems to end in a contrived compromise. To save for spoilers I will say this, it’d have been a stronger, far more haunting horror film if it had ended just two minutes sooner.