Watching ’47 Meters Down’, I was immediately reminded of Jaume Collet-Sera’s ‘The Shallows’, a modest but thrilling genre piece from 2016, which starred Blake Lively as a surfer stranded offshore and facing off against an enormous great white shark. In this human vs. shark tale, director and co-writer Johannes Roberts clearly subscribes to a philosophy of more is more, putting not one but two girls in jeopardy, throwing in dozens of the beasts, and stranding our protagonists 47 metres below the surface. For all its transparent plotting, the film is a thrilling ride, albeit one hamstrung by a woefully misguided ending.
Lisa (Mandy Moore) has taken her sister Kate (Claire Holt) on holiday to Mexico in lieu of her boyfriend Stuart. Although labouring under the impression that Stuart has pulled out due to work commitments, a teary Lisa confesses that Stuart has in fact dumped her for being too boring. A cruel remark by any standards, but it’s evidently a piece of the puzzle moving forward. Kate takes Lisa out for the night to take her mind of Stuart, and they meet two local guys who invite them to go shark diving the next day. A hesitant Lisa is talked into it by Kate, who disinters Stuart’s parting words to prompt her sister into agreeing. This is the start of a repeated pattern.
There are several moments where any reasonable person in Lisa’s shoes might have pulled the plug on this whole enterprise. For instance, Lisa not being a trained scuba diver as required, or perhaps when the pair meet so-relaxed-he’s-almost-anaesthetised divemaster Captain Taylor (Matthew Modine, clearly enjoying himself), or surely when they catch a glimpse of Taylor rusty equipment. But alas, Kate need only mention Stuart’s name to push Lisa past her reasonable reservations. It’s not exactly elegant, but it’s efficient screenwriting from Roberts and co-writer Ernest Riera.
Their new friends go first, but when it’s Lisa and Kate’s turn to hop in the diving cage and be lowered into the sharks’ aquatic domain, Taylor’s equipment malfunctions, sending them plummeting to the ocean floor in a terrifying, head-spinning freefall. The girls are trapped in the cage 47 metres below the surface, out of radio range with Taylor above, running low on their oxygen and options. They’ve seen the monstrous, 20-plus-foot sharks swimming around the boat, so they’re aware of what is waiting for them outside the cage. They also can’t just barrel up towards the surface, lest they fall victim to the bends (a form of deadly decompression sickness resulting from too rapid a return to shallow water). It’s a primal, painful exercise to put yourself in their position. This compact premise smartly taps into a fear that I imagine many would share –surrounded by a deadly foe, while the clock counts down to your eventual suffocation. It makes my skin crawl just reliving the girls’ plight in my mind.
But these are the plucky heroines of a survival horror film – they aren’t the type to surrender meekly. They formulate a plan to get back to the surface: shift the sunken winch pinning the cage door, re-establish radio contact with Taylor, then locate and attach the backup winch, all before their oxygen runs out. However, rows of razor sharp teeth are watching their every move, and any mistake could be their last.
Roberts is evidently a genre filmmaker that knows his craft. He understands that every low angled shot of a swimmer’s exposed flesh is translated by our ‘Jaws’-trained minds into the shark’s point of view, that every long shot of a diver surrounded by the black of the ocean’s inky depths will conjure premonitions of dark shapes swimming into frame. He knows how to get the most out of musical duo tomandandy’s intense score, scattering it across the narrative’s ‘big’ moments. The visuals are excellent too, and cinematographer Mark Silk finds a way to combine arresting frames with consistently attractive and reasonably well-lit underwater visuals.
The whole thing comes unstuck by the ending though. There were clearly two endings on the table (a happy one and a sad one), but rather than stick to a course the film tries to mash them both together for some bizarre reason. It’s trying to have its chum and eat it too. It’s ill-advised, almost amateurish, working the two conclusions together using a narrative ‘twist’ that, although I won’t name it for the sake of spoilers, is almost certainly known industry-wide as a definite no-no. As it stands, the ending is admittedly a real gut-punch, largely due to the commendable chemistry built up between Moore and Holt in the lead roles, but it certainly deflates much of the third act’s thrilling liveliness. Maybe Roberts and Riera wanted to be edgy by throwing caution to the wind and abandoning the accepted “rules” of good writing, but some decrees are in place for a good reason.
’47 Meters Down’, I was shocked to learn, was made with a budget of $5.5 million. It’s aforementioned relative, ‘The Shallows’: $17 million. When put into these terms, their achievement is notable, dishing up a healthy number of scares and gut-churning moments, handsome camerawork and a handful of good performances. But a slight budget doesn’t explain how this ending ended up in the final cut. It doesn’t totally chew up the strong remainder of the film, but it certainly takes a decent bite out of it. One for the genre lovers rather than casual viewers then.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Review by the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting