If my calculations are correct, 47 meters comes out to 154 feet. Being trapped in a shark cage at that depth surely isn’t pleasant, and neither, it turns out, is watching a movie about such an ordeal: “47 Meters Down” sinks rather than swims, even if there are a few buoyant moments along the way.
Mandy Moore stars in Johannes Roberts’ entry in the vaunted shark-thriller genre, which finds her on vacation in Mexico. Her motivation is of the male variety, of course: Lisa was recently left by her boyfriend for being “too boring” and envisions this south-of-the-border excursion as a means of proving her ex wrong via exciting selfies of her living her best life. Since sitting poolside and late-night dance parties are totally basic, she eventually relents when her younger, more outgoing sister Kate (Claire Holt) suggests they go swimming with the sharks.
It turns out that entrusting your safety to a rickety boat captained by Matthew Modine doesn’t actually epitomize the “safety first” ethos, and so the two siblings quickly find themselves on the seafloor after the shark cage comes untethered. With limited air and no safe means of surfacing — to swim straight up would both draw the attention of several Great Whites and risk decompression sickness, AKA the bends — Lisa and Kate are forced to get creative as their survival instincts take over.
There are safer ways to self-actualize than surviving a shark attack, of course, but movie heroines insist on learning the hard way. Blake Lively acquitted herself quite well in “The Shallows,” which emerged as the most pleasantly surprising film of last summer; Moore, for her part, is sunk by straight-to-video dialogue: “The shark almost got me!” she yells after the shark almost gets her; “I’m almost out of air,” she says as she runs out of air. Such declarations are quite literally wastes of breath, and “47 Meters Down” might have been much improved by excising the dialogue from the underwater sequences.
Thanks to the lensing of cinematographer Mark Silk, those scenes are at least compelling in their abyssal murkiness. Moore and Holt might as well be floating in space for how dark and full of terrors their aquatic environs are, and 150 feet has rarely felt like such an insurmountable distance. Silk’s fluid camerawork glides through the water in such a way that we’re constantly on edge thinking a shark is just about to emerge from the depths, though Roberts relies on jump scares less than you might expect.
But unlike in other, better (wo)man-versus-nature thrillers, those toothy creatures never become characters unto themselves. It’s unclear how many of them there actually are, meaning we’re unable to mentally map out the seafloor and strategize along with Lisa and Kate. (“The Shallows,” conversely, wisely focused on just one memorable shark and even made a fan favorite of Steven Seagull — the most compelling animal character of 2016 not named Black Phillip.) It’s enough to leave you wishing for some Herzogian musings about whether or not sharks dream and how chumming the water is a grand metaphor for our miserable lot in life.
Roberts opts for a more barebones approach, which for a time is admirable in its stripped-down simplicity. “47 Meters Down” manages to be consistently tense while rarely being fun or enjoyable, which may well be Roberts’ aim: Lisa and Kate certainly aren’t enjoying themselves, so why should we? Save for one genuinely thrilling moment involving a deep-red flare and the sudden appearance of several hungry sharks, though, the effect grows more tiresome than thrilling. Viewers can only be reasonably expected to watch Mandy Moore flail about underwater for so long before they start rooting for the shark.