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47 Meters Down

By PIERS MARCHANT Special to the Democrat-Gazette

This article was published June 16, 2017 at 1:49 a.m.


Lisa (Mandy Moore) is one scared young lady in Johannes Roberts’ claustrophobic undersea thriller 47 Meters Down.

Captain Taylor adjusts Lisa’s (Mandy Moore) wet suit as her adventurous kid sister Kate (Claire Holt) looks on in 47 Meters Down, which one critic, at...

47 Meters Down

87 Cast: Mandy Moore, Claire Holt, Matthew Modine, Yani Gellman

Director: Johannes Roberts

Rating: PG-13, for sequences of intense peril, bloody images and brief strong language

Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes

For my money, the scariest scene in Jaws, a film chock-full of them, is the moment near the climax, when Hooper (Richard Dreyfus) is lowered down in a shark cage with a giant syringe of poison in a last ditch attempt to take out the monster predator. Peering in fear around him in the gloom, we are all stuck in that insufficient little cage with Hooper as he scans desperately through the ocean murk. It's the perfect encapsulation of a very human terror at facing such a violent unknown.

That unnerving feeling of panic and claustrophobia is precisely what director Johannes Roberts has mined quite effectively for his updated shark-filled thriller. Echoing the original iconic shark movie, the opening shots are of the ocean floor, but unlike its classic predecessor, this isn't a POV shot slipping through the water, the camera slowly rises off the floor and into the depths above, giving in to the increasingly disconcerting haze of deep and boundless ocean.

Sort of Gravity only set in the muddled depths off the coast of Mexico instead of deep space, the film offers us a pair of sisters, older Lisa (Mandy Moore), a more staid type, still reeling from her longtime boyfriend dumping her for being "boring"; and firecracker Kate (Claire Holt), impulsive and adventurous, who came with her sis to this sweet Mexican resort to ramp up the fun quotient: a chummed-up version of Sense and Sensibility, as it were.

It is, of course, Kate who insists the two of them embark on a shark-tank excursion with a pair of handsome locals who swear by the experience. Despite Lisa's continuing qualms (she announces to Kate more than once that she is absolutely unable to do such a thing), soon enough, the pair are outfitted with scuba gear (of which only Kate has any previous experience) and are stepping into the worn and rusty shark cage of Captain Taylor (Matthew Modine, sporting an Axl Rose-like bandanna over his head), and being lowered down into the terrifying scrum of great whites swimming directly past them.

Naturally, things do not go as planned. Just as Lisa begins to relax and thrill to the experience, the cage suddenly shudders and drops a couple of feet in unsettling fashion. It quickly gets far worse. As the women are being lifted out of the water in the cage, the winch suddenly snaps, sending them careening down to the sandy bottom, stunned and terrified. Trapped in the cage and with no means of swimming up from that horrific depth for fear of the bends, the sisters have to try and survive long enough for help to arrive, but only after embarking upon various harrowing journeys for radio contact with the boat, and to obtain extra oxygen tanks lowered down from topside. It's only a relatively brief matter of time, of course, before they drown, but at various untimely intervals, the sharks can appear out of nowhere to terrorize them even further.

It's the kind of simplistic setup that plays like a bottle episode of a TV show, one that places the characters in a single spot and time, taking them out of context of the rest of their lives, but because Roberts artfully stages the film to provide maximum anxiety without totally pushing the boundaries of believability -- thankfully, we do not have a single, oddly fixated predator shark who acts out of anthropomorphic hostility, but rather, a series of curious fellows, who are really only looking for easy edible pickings -- the physical dread is enough to keep the film churning along.

We may not know much about the sisters beyond Lisa's admission of envy at her kid sister -- in one of the film's only shamelessly clunky scenes, this supposed revealing dialogue happens at the bottom of the ocean as they're waiting for help that never seems to come -- but, as constructed, we also don't really need to. There's a moment after things begin to look their bleakest where Lisa emphatically announces "I'm not going to die down here," perfectly emulating Sandra Bullock's character in Alfonso Cuaron's space survival epic finally coming to the realization that she has to fight for her life, by announcing "I'm not quitting."

This film is hardly purporting to be a rich character study (though neither was the far superior Gravity), rather, it's a study in anxious fear, and to that end, it's brutishly effective. At numerous times, I found myself gripping the edge of my notepad without realizing it, or in a dead giveaway, digging a fingernail into my arm to distract me from my apprehension. It's one thing to have characters stuck in the pitch darkness, but quite another when you can see just enough to terrify you, waiting for the shark to show. There are a couple of decent jump scares, but Roberts, a veteran of horror fare, mostly hooks us with atmospheric dread, the pressure mounting as the women's oxygen tanks slowly deplete. There were moments where I honestly thought he consciously relented a bit, and was embarrassingly thankful for it.

It must also be said that, while the film doubtlessly used CGI in various forms in the shooting (for one thing it was shot primarily in a tank) much of the shark footage appears to be quite genuine -- including one heart-stopping scene where a shark attacks one of the women as she's hiding in an underwater cave -- which effectively adds to the core believability. As has been previously noted, CGI has been the dedicated bane of modern shark films, from the execrable Deep Blue Sea to last summer's more tolerable The Shallows, giving us an implausibly animated shark doing incredibly nonshark-like things, which has the opposite of the intended fearful effect, turning the would-be terror to just so much cartoon buffoonery. Here, the sharks aren't even the main problem, they're an additional obstacle for the women to have to overcome in order to survive.

The film also has a few tricks up its sleeve (one of which also shamelessly copped from Cuaron) that allow it to bring us a satisfying amount of sheer terror -- including that most anxiety-producing moment when someone is about to be hauled out of the water just as a shark is fast approaching them -- without entirely losing its sense of plausibility. If you go, don't expect to learn much about the human condition, but definitely be prepared to tie your fingers in knots. To say, as one critic has (at least according to the TV trailer), it's the best shark film since Jaws isn't really such high praise considering the competition (with the occasional exception such as the haunting Open Water), but I can definitively tell you it's the most unnerving shark film since Spielberg's mechanized brute patrolled the waters for wayward swimmers off the coast of Amity Island 42 years ago.

MovieStyle on 06/16/2017

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