There’s something downright noble about the simplicity of 47 Meters Down. Since the dawn of the “shark genre”—yes, by now there are enough shark pictures that we can comfortably qualify the lot as a genre all its own—directors have been supplementing the dangers inherent in a face-off with one (or more) of these would-be killing machines of the sea with some narrative embroidery to make matters all the more menacing. Deep Blue Sea made its sharks hyper-intelligent; Shark Night upped the ante on its aquatic predators’ quantity and size; Sharknado, Sharktopus, and Ghost Shark—well, you know.
But in stark contrast to this collective, 47 Meters Down vies minimalist, both in terms of premise and aesthetic. Ostensibly committed to the parameters of a favorite exchange from its genre forebear—“You go inside the cage, cage goes in the water, you go in the water, shark's in the water”—the film actually gets a better hold of some of the humane horrors lost in process of upgrading such shark movies to shark-movies-but-with-a-twist.
To be fair, 47 Meters Down does benefit from just a touch of garnish: American sisters Lisa (Mandy Moore) and Kate (Claire Holt) aren’t just stuck in a cage in a shark-laden sea; they’re stuck in a cage at the bottom of a shark-laden sea after the doohickey keeping them tethered to the shark-sighting boat operated by one Matthew Modine breaks. As such, sharks are hardly the only issue in play: a dissipating oxygen supply, sporadically incurred bodily injuries, and the threat of those horrible, horrible bends all rear their ugly heads over the course of the film.
To be sure, each threat does supply its fair share of dread. If you’re not unnerved by the threat of bloodthirsty sharks, you’ll perhaps be wound up over the notion of nitrogen bubbles poisoning your brain from the inside out. An unpleasant thought, and one that is made to stick with you for the bulk of the girls’ imprisonment 150 feet below the surface.
Robbing 47 Meters Down of a good deal of the tension amounted by its collection of close-to-home dangers is the meager investment it earns in its central characters. Lisa and Kate, though devoted to one another’s well-being thanks to the bonds of blood, aren’t an especially interesting pair, and not much for getting your heart involved in what happens to them. In fact, the most—perhaps only—interesting thing about the duo is their function as a comment on human impudence.
47 Meters Down doesn’t seem to have too high an opinion of its bipedal characters. As American tourists in the film’s Mexican setting, Lisa and Kate are shown, if only subtly and slightly, to be beacons of disregard, while Modine’s first mate (Chris Johnson) angers the fates with an illicit chum bucket. Not simply cynical flourishes, choices like these lend to the movie’s fundamental simplicity. It’s not as though the sharks we meet are out for vengeance, or the conditions uniquely grim. The dangers in 47 Meters Down are standard, and made the more dangerous only thanks to the characters’ refusal to acknowledge them.
In other words, the horrors we get from 47 Meters Down are admirably raw. Perhaps not crafted with great sophistication, or demanding of your utmost investment, no. But considering the supernatural audacity that has befallen the dangers-of-the-deep genre over the past few decades, it's kind of cool to see a film with such a tight focus on the normal.
Rating: 3 burritos
Images: Entertainment Studios
Michael Arbeiter is the East Coast Editor of Nerdist, and is desperately afraid of the ocean. Find Michael on Twitter @micarbeiter.