Director: Johannes Roberts
Cast: Mandy Moore, Claire Holt, Matthew Modine
Plot: Two sisters (Moore, Holt) hire a shark cage experience to get up close and personal with Great White Sharks. But then the cage’s wire snaps, sending the girls to the bottom of the ocean floor, trapped and surrounded by killer sharks.
Ever since Steven Spielberg perfected the shark movie with Jaws, the rest of the world has been playing catch up. Many have tried, bless them, their passions for seeing a decent movie about a killer shark evident in their projects, but none have come close to capturing that primal terror that came with Spielberg’s work. However, then 2017 came along, delivering not one, but two solid shark movies: Blake Lively’s The Shallows and now this, 47 Metres Down.
Comparing these two terrific thrillers helps figure out where the others have been going so wrong in the past. Like any sequel worth its salt, the natural instinct was to go bigger and better. Jaws had one killer shark; the next movie had three. Why not make the next shark bigger? Deep Blue Sea is a perfect example, taking the formula of Jaws, but having genetically engineered sharks, hoping to up the ante. I am assuming the same can be said of upcoming shark thriller, the Meg, which essentially writes in a prehistoric shark to grant them the power to use a bigger fish. However, what The Shallows and 47 Metres Down do is forget the grand scale fear tactics and focus back on that personal, intimate feel. Jaws tapped into a very real fear and told the story through three charismatic and three-dimensional characters. We were all that worried father and police officer, Roy Schneider, and we all knew someone who fit Richard Shaw’s crazy adventurer and Richard Dreyfuss’ humorous best friend figure. The formula worked. 47 Metres Down stops overthinking the sub-genre and goes back to basics. What we end up with is a very terrifying concept that is born from a very believable fear. Shark cage diving is meant to tap into that fear, the same way rollercoasters play off of the fear of crashing or parachute jumping feeds off of the adrenaline junkie’s fear of heights. 47 Metres Down, like all good horrors, simply uses that rational fear and applies it to its work. Therefore, the story takes no time in setting up the two sister characters (one of them getting over an asshole ex), trying out a shark cage for the first time, when the wire snaps and sends them 47 metres down, to the point of the ocean floor. Suddenly, they are surviving off of the very little oxygen in their tanks and as soon as they leave the shark cage, they are at the mercy of some hungry, deadly Great White Sharks. It’s simple, it’s scary, it’s one of the best shark movies out there…
Strangely, the reason 47 Metres Down succeeds so strongly as a shark movie is because, for a long time, it doesn’t really need the sharks. In fact, sceptics might argue that the sharks here are the icing on the cake of the thriller, rather than the meat of the movie. I argue that’s a good thing; the real villain of the film is the ocean itself, and the lack of air available to the girls. Realising this golden rule, Johannes Roberts finds himself with unlimited areas for racking up the tension. There are certain points where you can almost see Roberts checking out the Brian De Palma backlog to get inspiration for certain shots and framing devices. The girls have equipment telling them how deep they are, which does half the work for the writers when it comes to hammering home how futile the situation is. The oxygen meter is the easy method of spooking the audience, as it puts a clear timer on the whole situation. As the girls race for a spare oxygen tank on the ocean floor, their last few breaths escaping their lips, the audience are squirming in their seats. That kind of thrill doesn’t even need a shark to hover ominously in the distance or jump out at the audience… although god blimey, they do! Sometimes it isn’t even the visual cues, but simply the situation that Roberts can use to keep the audience whimpering. With not much meat to the premise, Roberts slows down the opening, to the point where we pretty much get the scuba diving kit getting put on and the cage getting lowered into the water in real time. It slowly notches up the tension before anything has even happened. When we finally get to the cage stuck on the ocean floor, surprisingly the claustrophobia isn’t the scary bit. It is whenever the girls venture out into the open sea that the goose-bumps really kick in. The sea turns into a real nightmare, as the blue stretches out for endless miles. The sharks are almost invisible (which helps mask the fact they are CGI – however impressive the animations is here), and it is easy to lose your direction when swimming in the deep. The girls can’t even take their chances and try to swim to the surface, as ascending too quickly will result in nitrogen bubbles going into their brain, killing them for sure. They have no choice but to solve their predicament from the ocean floor. Johannes Roberts has found such a winning premise, by the midway point he doesn’t even need to do any hard work to make his film very strong. In fact, the film’s only weak point is when the director seems to forget this golden rule and adds a silly twist to the end. It won’t spoil the film too much, but it does make for a meaningless final two minutes. A stumble on an otherwise fine film.
Final Verdict: Less is more. Twinned with The Shallows, 47 Metres Down suggests the shark movie might be making a resurgence.