As The Shallows & 47 Meters Down have stalked American theaters like so many bloodthirsty shark movies past in two consecutive summers, it’s been exciting to think that we’re in the midst of another post-Jaws sharksploitation boom, one where we’ll see a new woman-vs-shark horror pic every year. 47 Meters Down‘s voyage to the big screen is unconventional in the modern distribution era, following a path that feels more appropriate for horror’s straight-to-VHS days in the 80s & 90s. 47 Meters Down was actually released the same summer as the Blake Lively-vs.-shark surprise money-earner The Shallows, except that it went straight to VOD & home video under the title In the Deep. A bigger production company then bought the rights to the film, changed its title, and pulled it from the market for a proper nationwide theatrical release. The thinking there might have partially been that The Shallows was a surprise financial success that could easily be repeated, but I think that decision actually had a lot less to do with its genre than it does with its star: Mandy Moore. A year ago, Mandy Moore was a has-been pop star whose career as an actor died with long forgotten titles like A Walk to Remember & (my personal favorite) Saved!. Since then, she’s re-entered the public consciousness as the star of the hit NBC melodrama This Is Us, raising her profile just enough that it’s believable she could at least sell Blake Lively levels of theater tickets fighting off a shark or two. The problem is that, while Mandy Moore may have been ready to make the jump to the big screen again, 47 Meters Down was not; the movie still carries the stink of VOD chum no matter how large or loud it’s projected.
Moore stars as a young woman vacationing in Mexico while recovering from a significant romantic breakup. Her more adventurous sister urges her to be daring and live it up while away from home & freed from romantic shackles. The movie’s pre-shark narrative set-up mostly follows the pair as they club with cute boys until dawn to painfully generic dance music. This urging to try new things & stray from her normal, boring life leads Moore’s protagonist to risk her life with an illegal, unlicensed tourist attraction that submerges SCUBA divers in a steel cage & baits the water with chum to attract sharks. Huge sharks. While submerged, the two sisters are inevitably dropped by the rusty, rickety crane that was hoisting their cage and plummet to the ocean floor. What follows is a combination of a tag team steel cage straight from a pro wrestling PPV and an aquatic version of Gravity where the women have to find their way to the surface of the water while avoiding getting eaten, oxygen depravation, and the bends. I suppose there’s some interesting visual play with the endless voids of vast ocean settings and the dispersal of red liquids that could attract predators: blood, chum, sugary cocktails. For the most part, though, the movie plays out exactly as you’d expect a cheap summertime sharksploitation to until its concluding ten minutes, when it expends all of its creative energy on its one distinctive idea. At the last minute, 47 Meters Down decides it wants to play with the narrative potentials of nitrogen narcosis, introducing the paranoia of hallucination to its already tense underwater hell of circling sharks & dwindling oxygen. In a way, it’s disappointing that the movie bothers to distinguish itself with that weird energy so late in its runtime, since it already felt like a decidedly generic affair. All the film’s last minute hypnotic rug pull does is make you wish those ideas had come through weirder, stronger, earlier, and more often.
There’s not much substance to 47 Meters Down in terms of the variety & brutality of its shark attacks. The film seems more invested in building tension in confinement and staging its last minute toying with underwater psychosis than it does in its shark content. This might be a blessing in regards to distracting the audience from the VOD quality of the sharks’ CGI, but as an air-headed sharksploitation pic with only one or two unique ideas it could have easily made more room for a few more shark attacks. Whenever the sharks are out of view and the submerged sisters are fretting over their oxygen supply & the bends, the film’s inherent cheapness becomes blatantly obvious. Underwater & communicating via walkie talkies, much of 47 Meters Down is propelled by dubbed-after-the-fact dialogue. There’s some amusing irony in lines like, “Trust me, once you get down there, you’re never gonna want to come back up” before the cage breaks free & plummets, but much of the dialogue feel like treading water between the sparse shark attacks. 47 Meters Down is an almost-decent summertime horror cheapie that leaves you on a bizarre high note just before the end credits roll, but I have to admit I’m ultimately more fascinated with its path to theater screens than I am with what it did once it got there. For instance, how did a nobody director negotiate the title card “Johannes Roberts’ 47 Meters Down” as if his name meant something to audiences? That small act of self-promotion feels just as oddly archaic as the film’s unconventional distribution path. Since its shark attacks brutality & third act imagery weren’t pushed far as they could have been, it’s those kinds of production details that jump out at you as oddly significant to the film’s basic unlikely existence. I did not appreciate 47 Meters Down as much as the campier & more distinctly violent The Shallows, but I did find it at least mildly interesting as a kind of cultural object and if another female-led sharksploitation piece pops up in theaters next summer, I’ll certainly be returning to the well.