When pretty white girls are marooned in Mexico, things rarely end well. At least that’s the impression you get from watching too much horror cinema or Nancy Grace. In an agonizing example of the former, Lisa (Mandy Moore) and her sister Kate (Claire Holt), the suffering couple at the center of 47 Meters Down, decide to spruce up their south-of-the-border getaway by cage-diving with great white sharks.
Never mind that they discovered this excursion not from their hotel concierge but from a couple of dudes they picked up after-hours, the sort of fellas who “know a guy” who captains a boat. Or that Kate hasn’t dived a day in her life. Or that the cage seems especially rusty, the suspension rope a bit too frayed. Kate needs to do this anyway, she says: Her longtime boyfriend has just left her because she is “too boring.” Swimming with sharks alongside her adventurous sister will show him who’s boring! The captain, it turns out, is played by Matthew Modine, a calming, unshady presence. What could possibly go wrong?
The director, a British B-horror guru named Johannes Roberts, gives you about a half-hour to breathe before unleashing a solid hour of sheer, unrelenting panic. Everything that could go wrong does, beginning with the girls’ seemingly fatalistic plunge into the ocean depths with nothing but their oxygen tanks and survivalist wiles to save them from time and predators. Roberts confronts them with a series of escalating challenges — escaping from the locked cage, swimming close enough to the surface to radio the captain while avoiding sharks. All the while, their diminishing oxygen supply serves as a perpetual reminder that every breath brings them closer to death.
Roberts plays off a number of primal fears: of sharks, of confinement, of drowning, of abandonment. Though he does so skillfully, he maxes out his terror card. 47 Meters Down is most effective in the stomach-churning moments just preceding the dive, when the girls ignore their better judgment and begin the descent into the terrifying abyss. As Hitchcock knew, suggestion is scarier than presentation, insinuation more powerful than action. By seeing everything — all the near-misses and shed blood, the hopeful communiqués and thwarted escapes — we grow numb to Roberts’ underwater torture porn.
There’s also a sense that we’ve seen this movie before, or something like it. It’s been more than 40 years since Jaws, and sharks still haven’t hired a better PR agent. Though shark-on-human attacks are exceedingly rare, their presence is an old saw in the deep-sea grindhouse genre, with Wikipedia collating more than 80 killer shark films. In last year’s The Shallows, they sharpened their claws on another reckless blonde, Blake Lively.
The sharks trolling the coast of Mexico in 47 Meters Down are not villains per se; they’re just being sharks. To the film’s meager credit, there are no antagonists. Neither the captain nor the girls’ almost-gallant suitors — both willing to settle for a goodnight kiss the night before — exhibit threatening motivations. The girls are likeable too, which already lifts the movie above trash like Open Water.
But to ascribe depth and substance to 47 Meters Down is to grade it on too generous a curve. Lisa is a veritable cipher, more of an outline than a character. Kate is defined entirely by her relationship to the man who recently left her, and whose presence in the film is limited to a pair of dismissive text messages. We’re meant to sympathize with Kate because we’re only treated to her side of the breakup — callous boyfriend breaks long-term vows because he grows bored with his partner — when the situation is surely more complicated than that.
But Roberts can’t wait to rush into the movie’s raison d’etre, and besides, character psychology might just be above his pay grade. He’s a knife-twister, sticking it to his creations long after the blade has dulled.
47 METERS DOWN. Director: Johannes Roberts; Cast: Mandy Moore, Claire Holt, Chris C. Johnson, Yani Gellman, Matthew Modine; Rating: PG-13 (somehow); Distributor: Entertainment Studios; Opens: Friday at most area theaters