If Blake Lively can go mano a mano with a shark, why can’t Mandy Moore? Not a question that’s captivated the public imagination, necessarily, but 47 Meters Down attempts to provide an answer all the same. Set in Mexico, where Lisa (Moore) and her younger sister, Kate (Claire Holt), are on vacation together, the film wastes admirably little time putting them in peril, pausing only briefly to establish, for those viewers who require some sort of jejune emotional backstory (which The Shallows likewise supplied), that Lisa was recently dumped by her boyfriend for the crime of being insufficiently exciting and spontaneous. That’s her primary motivation, along with prodding from the more adventurous Kate, for accepting an invitation from two local hunks (Chris J. Johnson and Yani Gellman) to go cage diving in shark-infested waters. (Matthew Modine plays the tiny role of the boat captain, for which he’s hilariously overqualified.)
Actually, sharks are only one of numerous life-threatening problems these sisters face. Virtually the entire movie takes place underwater, as the winch holding the somewhat flimsy cage in which Lisa and Kate are viewing marine life quickly snaps, sending them—yes, indeed—47 meters down. Problem one: That’s about seven meters too deep for the range of their transceivers, meaning that one of them will have to leave the (relative) safety of the cage in order to communicate with the boat. Problem two: They’re both quickly running out of air, and heavy breathing due to panic isn’t helping. Problem three: Anyone who dives down to assist them might be eaten by a shark, which tends to hamper the rescue process. Problem four: Even if Lisa and Kate were prepared to risk becoming shark chow, they can’t swim to the surface quickly enough to avoid imminent oxygen depletion, as decompression sickness (a.k.a. the bends) would then likely kill them.
Directed by Johannes Roberts, whose previous credits include such lesser-known horror films as Storage 24 and The Other Side Of The Door (and who’s now working on a sequel to Bryan Bertino’s The Strangers), 47 Meters Down opens with a wry flourish, as a Bloody Mary spilled in the hotel pool, photographed from below, foreshadows carnage to come. Mostly, though, the film sticks reasonably close to what might actually happen in this situation, for better and worse. Lisa and Kate are realistically terrified throughout, even considering the screenplay’s tiresome need to “redeem” Lisa for her guy-repelling timidity; their entirely credible freak-outs are refreshing at first, grating by the end. They’re also wearing scuba gear for almost the entire film, which inevitably restricts Moore and Holt’s ability to do anything facially subtle. The fun in watching 47 Meters Down derives not so much from drama, or even from excitement, as simply from a keen interest in seeing how each successive difficulty will be overcome.
Up to a point, that is. The movie’s third act takes an abrupt swerve in a less plausible, more heightened direction, serving up the conventional heroics that acts one and two had studiously avoided. There’s a reason for this, which is carefully set up (alert viewers will instantly note the key line of dialogue and await confirmation of their suspicion), but that doesn’t make what happens any less silly. It feels a bit as if Adaptation’s Donald Kaufman suddenly showed up to polish his brother Charlie’s script, and then Charlie wrested back control in the last few minutes, fashioning a jerry-rigged justification for all the nonsense. 47 Meters Down never remotely approaches greatness, but for an hour or so, its unfussy, workmanlike portrait of ordinary people in crisis (plus killer sharks) gets the job done. There was no need for a climactic rug-pull.
For thoughts on, and a place to discuss, plot details we can’t reveal in this review, visit 47 Meters Down’s Spoiler Space.