47 Meters Down is a SCUBA diving safety video disguised as a feature film. At the film’s conclusion one is left with a sense of emptiness to rival the vast abyss in which it takes place. After viewing, one is also left with the impression that the film was co-funded by the Mexican Tourist Board and the International Association of Diving Instructors; The Mexican coast is shot as the colourful paradise it undoubtedly is, though sisters Lisa (Mandy Moore) and Kate (Claire Holt) seem to possess the uncanny ability to locate the emptiest beaches on the southern hemisphere with astonishing ease.
Writer Ernest Riera and writer-cum-director Johannes Roberts include a smattering of Spanish in their script, and the choice not to include subtitles injects the film with a little extra (if not entirely needed) tension. Once Kate has corralled Lisa on to a rusted, rickety boat captained by bandana-sporting non-character Captain Taylor (Matthew Modine) she questions the legality of adding blood to the water to attract sharks; Javier (Chris Johnson) expresses his annoyance at their naivete with his fellow natives: “se gringas aqui, no sabe nada.” He’s not wrong, the girls do seem to know nothing about what they’re getting in to, and it’s difficult to believe that Lisa would volunteer for the trip, even when cajoled by her sister. Claire Holt is convincing as the Worst Sister Ever, mocking and pleading with Lisa to join her on the doomed expedition, even leveraging Lisa’s failed relationship against her.
“How deep do you think it goes?” Lisa asks the moment they’re in the tank: she’s about to find out.
This film is no Piranha 3DD, and despite the beauty of the leads and their handsome male counterparts there’s little in the way of lasciviousness or unsubtle cinematography. Even the first act’s scenes of partying and frivolity provide an opportunity for cute moments and characterisation rather than cheap physicality.
Other dialogue in the film isn’t as nuanced. Exposition is heavy in order to make more room for the underwater scenes which make up the bulk of the second and third acts. Music is used lightly, and primarily for the building of tension. Twice in the final segments of the film the music is built to a juddering crescendo while Kate and Lisa try to attach their oxygen lines to new tanks, one after the other. The placement of these scenes in rapid succession is a little fatiguing, as is the second tumble the women take in their battered shark cage.
Lisa’s presence on the boat itself is something of a mystery. The fatal flaw which condemns her and her sister is the desire to be spontaneous and interesting, a result of her off-screen boyfriend leaving her because he’s bored. 47 Meters Down lays it on thick with the foreshadowing, and by the time Lisa observes that the shark cage isn’t entirely OSHA certified, everybody in the room knows what’s coming.
Surprisingly for a shark film, sharks aren’t the primary antagonist here – the real enemy is isolation, and Mark Silk’s cinematography does a good job of emphasising this. Wide, expansive shots of the little boat in the ocean warn us that the shore – and shallow waters, are threateningly far away. Shark-film clichés are mindfully avoided, with only a couple of instances of moving shots approaching the girls from obtuse, shark-like angles. Special effects are consistently well done considering that much of the films’ $5 million budget must have been spent on location shooting, underwater rigging, and catering for the sharks. Apart from some dodgy fish early-on in to the girl’s underwater foray, the sharks are believably rendered, made possible in no small part by the dimly-lit surroundings. At the close of the film Lisa lights her final flare only to find herself inches from a number of enormous, open-mouthed monsters, and this makes for one of the most trailer-worthy shots of the feature.
The film oscillates between claustrophobia and thalassophobiat; Kate points out early on that sharks like to attack from below, and the girls spend much of their time hugging the sea floor. They find themselves in wider waters without the comfort of the sea bed, and the expository work done early on comes to fruition – one expects sharks from every corner. The camera doesn’t linger on the sharks: the predators shoot past quickly and savagely. In this manner they’re effective as a lingering potential threat, hemming the girls in to the cage without being physically present. The death of Kate itself isn’t gratuitous either – it’s sudden and brutal.
The film’s third act offers the most for filmgoers eager for underwater predatory action. The girls manage to swim midway to the surface, warding off sharks with their remaining flares and two oxygen tanks conveniently dropped by Captain Taylor. With 47 Meters Down Johannes Roberts has attempted to make a film which subverts a genre, and in this it’s successful. The film is a cautionary tale, though it’s unclear what’s being cautioned against other than making terrible choices while travelling abroad.
Dir: Johannes Roberts
Scr: Johannes Roberts, Ernest Riera
Cast: Mandy Moore, Claire Holt, Matthew Modine
Prd: James Harris, Mark Lane
DOP: Mark Silk
Country: USA/UK/Dominican Republic
Run time: 89 mins
47 Meters Down is in cinemas now.