Johannes Roberts has long been a director we’ve held in high esteem around these parts. 2010’s F was one of the most attention-grabbing British horror movies of the past decade, and he’s been steadily on the ascent in the years since. 47 Metres Down would seem to be his highest profile film yet, with a somewhat chequered history as its arrival coincided with that of last year’s similarly-themed The Shallows, and – having been initially poised to go straight to DVD – it was granted a US theatrical release at the last minute, with an eye to cashing in on the relative commercial success of its rival. Sounds a bit cutthroat: but then, we probably ought to mention right away that this is a production of Dimension Films, i.e. the genre end of The Weinstein Company, who – even before the recent, horrible revelations – were always known for being ruthless and meddlesome. In the current climate, there will doubtless be some readers who, seeing the names Harvey and Bob Weinstein attached, will be inclined to give 47 Metres Down a wide berth straight away; although that would be to overlook the fact that it’s primarily the work of a talented British writer-director, against whom no such allegations have been made.
Still, the big question is, will viewers who choose to pass up 47 Metres Down because of the Weinstein connection be robbing themselves of something special? The answer – which may or may not be a good thing, dependant on your point of view – is, not really. While Roberts has delivered a perfectly efficient claustrophobic thriller, 47 Metres Down is unlikely to earn a spot in the shark movie hall of fame. It has a nice premise, and some effective sequences, but comes up lacking when it comes to giving the audience something to really linger in the memory.
Siblings Lisa (Mandy Moore) and Kate (Claire Holt) are vacationing together in Mexico. For Kate, a few days in an exotic locale isn’t anything too out of the ordinary, but apparently it’s quite the change of pace for the elder, more reserved Lisa, who reveals to her little sister midway through their holiday that she’s been dumped by her longtime boyfriend, and came to Mexico because she wanted to do something impulsive in the hopes of seeming like a more adventurous person. After a couple of days in the sun and nights at the club, Kate talks Lisa into something very adventurous indeed; a shark-spotting trip out at sea, where they’ll be lowered beneath the surface in a cage to see the majestic creatures up close. Sure, Lisa’s never scuba-dived before, the crew that take them out seem a little unprofessional, and the boat itself looks like it’s seen better days, even if it is captained by Matthew Modine. But what could go wrong, eh? The crew will bring them up at the first sign of trouble, and in any case, they’ll only be lowering the cage five metres. However – as you might possibly have ascertained from the title – something does go wrong, and the cage winds up going a whole lot lower than intended: all the way to the ocean floor, in fact.
As I remarked when The Shallows first opened, we are well overdue a return to properly scary shark movies, as for such a long time the terrifying sea-beasts have been the fodder of absurdist B-movie fare like the confoundingly durable Sharknado series. The Shallows was a definite step in the right direction, and all being well next year’s Meg (the Jason Statham-headlined adaptation of Steve Alten’s novel about a 70 foot prehistoric megaladon shark) might get the job done even better – but where does 47 Metres Down land? Well, it would be overstating things to say that the movie sinks to the bottom with a thud as heavily as the pivotal cage, but there’s no denying that it falls short in several capacities. For starters, while the film is handsomely shot, it’s quite clear that the bulk of the shark action has been added in digitally (although, to be fair, this was also true of The Shallows). This does undermine certain key moments, when otherwise the tension had been building effectively. Some may also bemoan the comparative lack of gore, given the film was shot for a PG-13; although, as if often the case, it still wound up with a 15 from the BBFC, and not unreasonably so as it would doubtless be a bit much for younger viewers.
However, the real problem with 47 Metres Down is the protagonists. While the first act is intended to establish the differing characters of the sisters, both wind up feeling utterly bland and two-dimensional, and the actresses themselves do little to elevate the material. Moore’s Lisa in particular as built up as such a wet blanket, it’s almost impossible to believe she’d agree to the dive in the first place, and her near-constant fretting and stating the obvious gets very tedious, very quickly. We need to really root for the characters for survivalist tales of this sort to succeed, but given Lisa’s rather weak motivation (she just wants her boyfriend to find her exciting again), and the fact that we barely get to know Katie at all, it is rather hard to get particularly invested in their struggle to stay alive. It doesn’t help that Modine, in his small but fairly significant supporting role, feels like he’s just going through the motions.
Things do brighten up a little with a final act that packs a few surprises, but all in all 47 Metres Down is a pretty bog-standard underwater thriller that doesn’t really deliver all it needs to. Disappointing, both for shark movie fans and Johannes Roberts fans; but here’s hoping it does nothing to impede the director’s progress, even if we’ll be seeing a great deal less from the aforementioned producers in the near future.
47 Metres Down is available to download in the UK from 20th November, then DVD on 27th November, from Entertainment One.