While I am unfamiliar with director Johannes Roberts’ work, the English filmmaker seems to have carved out quite the name for himself in B-movie genre horror. So much so, that Roberts’ name appears above the title of his newest thriller, 47 Meters Down, as if it were “Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity” or “Steven Spielberg’s Jaws”. While I found this oddly presumptuous during the long opening credits sequence, Johannes Roberts’ 47 Meters Down is, in fact, a lean, palpable thriller worth attaching his name to. The pitch meeting was likely “Gravity meets Jaws“, and while it is certainly not as good as either of those two classics, 47 Meters Down is still one hell of a ride.
Mandy Moore (yes, the pop star turned actress in This is Us) is Lisa, older sister to Kate (Claire Holt). Lisa and Kate are on vacation in Mexico to get away from Lisa’s fresh breakup with her significant other, Stuart (his name isn’t important but I would have preferred a less laughable moniker to attach to some of the more emotional scenes where Mandy Moore is crying out for “Stuart”… just my $0.02). Stuart is leaving Lisa because he got bored with her; she is apparently too by-the-book and uptight for Stuart’s sensibilities. The same cannot be said for Kate, who has traveled the world, is a certified scuba diver, and makes out with random dudes on the first night because YOLO! After meeting two handsome Mexican men who suggest that they are friends with a local Captain (Matthew Modine) who could take them on the excursion of a lifetime, swimming with great white sharks, Kate coaxes Lisa to take their temporary boyfriends up on the offer and show Stuart what he’s missing.
Let’s pause here— on paper, this premise sounds inherently ludicrous. While I agree that swimming with sharks is anything but conservative, it seems like a rather extreme jump. “You want to make fun of me for not traveling without hand sanitizer? I’ll show you— I’m going running with the bulls!!” Luckily, Mandy Moore and Claire Holt successfully sell these character beats as pure, simple motivations, and Johannes Roberts does not spend a ton of time on them.
Cut to the boat, which we board with our characters within the first 10 minutes of the film. It is here where Johannes Roberts relishes in the little touches to get our nerves twitching— the rusty shark-viewing cage, the less-than-up-to-code lowering winch, the probably-high first mate dumping chum illegally into the water to attract the sharks— and Matthew Modine’s Captain Taylor offsets that quite well with his relaxed, All-American, “I moved down here and now I don’t even wear a watch” demeanor. Despite Lisa’s terror meter being at an all-time high, Kate calms her, reminds her of Stuart, and they get in the cage. The views from 5 meters underwater are utterly majestic, and seeing the sharks from this safe vantage point excite Lisa and embolden her confidence. That is, until the winch breaks when the return to the surface, sending the cage and its occupants careening 47 meters down to the bottom of the ocean floor. With limited oxygen, a shoddy walkie talkie connection, and man-eating sharks swimming just feet away from Lisa and Kate, the women must use their wits to escape their petrifying circumstance.
Again, as I recount the premise, I understand that it may sound ridiculous. But none of that honestly matters with 47 Meters Down. Roberts is able to ratchet up the tension in such an effective way, that if you can buy into the premise of why you’re in the water with these characters in the first place, you’ll have a nail-bitingly good time. At 89 minutes, Roberts knows exactly what he wants his film to be, and 47 Meters Down is a breathless sprint from the first act to the finish line. The film is also very well shot; often, the biggest challenge with bottle stories is finding a way to make the same location seem fresh and interesting. Like Alfonso Cuarón in Gravity, Roberts and cinematographer Mark Silk shoot these characters in ways that deliver an unnerving sense of scope and the enormity of the situation at-hand. They successfully illustrate the dark, isolating fear of the ocean, and seemingly-innocuous shots of our characters swimming in the deep sea are imbued with primal insignificance and helplessness. I can’t help but wonder what 47 Meters Down would have been like in 3D.
The acting is also surprisingly strong, despite some laughable dialogue. Mandy Moore is convincing as the audience surrogate, effectively conveying the feeling of “OMG why the hell did we do this” throughout so that we never have to pose the question ourselves. Her actions in the chain of events leading up to the situation are regrettably believable because of Claire Holt, who is similarly good as Lisa’s fun-loving, care-free sister. If the audience does not believe that Kate can convince Lisa to let go of her fear and get in the water to do this stupid thing, the house of cards that Johannes Roberts is building falls apart, and the actors thread that needle nicely. Matthew Modine is serviceable with what he’s being asked to do here, though the dialogue afforded to him is so bad that no one could have delivered those lines without some guffaws from the audience.
Overall, I had a lot of fun with 47 Meters Down. It is a straight-forward roller-coaster ride that has some clever twists and turns; one wallop that came near the end of the film nearly floored me. Had Roberts had the fortitude to stick the landing on the brilliant twist he presented, I would have unequivocally revered this film. But that said, I cannot fault the movie for staying on its traditional tracks and safely arriving where I knew it would end up. 47 Meters Down is an all-around effective thriller that will have viewers squirming in their seats. If this sounds like your bag, don’t hesitate to see it in the theater.
47 Meters Down opens in Philly theaters today.