Overview: Two sisters become trapped in a shark cage at the bottom of the ocean. With depleting oxygen and great white sharks roaming the dark depths around them, they must find the means to survive impossible odds. Entertainment Studios; Rated PG-13; 85 minutes.
Open Water: There is a sequence, about forty minutes into Johannes Roberts’ survival horror film where, after venturing out to retrieve a flashlight, Mandy Moore’s Lisa is swimming back to the safety of the cage at the bottom of the ocean. Her sister, Kate (Claire Holt) sits waiting in the cage, gasping in the depleting air from her tank and trying to reach her sister through her comms. But Lisa becomes disoriented, lost in waters so deep that even her flashlight can’t penetrate the darkness. Only her sister’s voice can guide her back. We see a shadow move behind her and at that moment, a woman in the audience yelled what we’re all thinking, “girl, you betta move your ass!” You see, 47 Meters Down, which was ironically set for a straight to DVD release last year before a distributor saw its theatrical potential, is one of those rare horror films that entirely works as participatory experience. Yes, commentary during films can be awful, but Roberts has created a roller coaster, and we’re forced to lean into every bump, lurch, and jostle until all we can do is grip our knees and hold our breaths as if we too are hooked up to oxygen tanks. And yes, sometimes we’ve just gotta yell.
The Shallows: Johannes gets the most out of the simple plot. Two sisters, one adventurous and the other not, opt to try an illegal shark cage experience after some encouragement from two guys they meet on vacation in Mexico. Little time is wasted with the setup. Recently broken up with by her boyfriend who claimed she was boring, Lisa hastily, though initially reluctant, decides to get in the shark cage, operated by Matthew Modine’s sundrenched Taylor. Johannes isn’t interested in setting up a heavy-handed metaphor for this experience, or delving much into these characters’ backgrounds. He dives straight for the visceral experiences of low oxygen, the bends, flesh wounds, and hysterical fear. Everything that could go wrong with shark cage diving does, and Johannes revels in each moment, displaying a level of patience that allows for the maximum in both setup and delivery. Moore and Holt both give commendable performances, their faces displaying every modicum of fear they’re forced to experience, even as their dialogue slips into repetition that forms an unaccommodating manta.
While there’s been a run of survival horror film of late that have seen heroines display MacGyver-like skills, 47 Meters Down digs its heels into the fact that these are two ordinary women on vacation whose survival skills aren’t much better than the average audience member. There’s logic behind every decision Lisa and Kate make, and while logic doesn’t always work in their best interests, the film does an admirable job in maintaining the fact that these two women are, as another character describes them, “gringas” and know very little about what they’re getting into. At the same time, Johannes and Ernest Riera’s script makes sure that neither women fall victim to dumb horror movie tropes.
Deep Blue Sea: The spirit of Roberts’ film owes a fair bit of its identity to Neil Marshall’s The Descent, and the last act acknowledges this debt rather deliberately. No, 47 Meters Down doesn’t have the same level of grief or exploration of femininity as Marshall’s film, but when it comes to claustrophobic tension and dizzying moments of terror induced by a natural world in which we don’t belong, Roberts’ film surfaces at that level. Underwater filmmaking is always impressive, so just the fact that it was done is impressive. But along with that, Johannes carefully balances clarity and obstruction in the water in a way that so many land-bound horror films fail to do. We’re never given too much of the sharks, and as if taking a cue from Spielberg, the filmmaker knows that sometimes less is more when it comes to shock value. In 47 Meters Down, it’s feeling the presence of something else out there in the dark that adds a terrifying threat to every decision made.
Overview: While 47 Meters Down isn’t groundbreaking, it resides fathoms above any recent aquatic horror film. As an experience, 47 Meters Down fully delivers on the potential of seeing a movie on a big screen with a crowded audience and collectively experiencing the terror of the deep. Wherever Johannes Roberts decides to take us next, we’ll be sure to follow him into the dark.
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