EXPLAINING HUMANITY’S WIDESPREAD (but unjustified) fear of sharks, the Harvard risk communication instructor David Ropeik said: “We’re not just afraid of things because of the likelihood that they’ll happen, but also because of the nature of them if they do happen. So it may be unlikely that you’ll be attacked by a shark, but it would suck if you did.” And suck it certainly would, which is why, presumably, even within the sub-genre of so-called ‘natural’ horror films, there is a fairly sizeable sub-sub genre revolving around the “killer shark”.
The latest offering in this category is 47 Metres Down by Johannes Roberts, who burst onto the scene with the critically acclaimed “hoodie thriller” F and has since been somewhat inconsistent. You would be forgiven for taking your seat at a screening of his latest film feeling a little pessimistic, but 47 Metres Down is better than your typical summer horror flick, if not by much.
The film begins beneath the water, and with an ominous throbbing musical accompaniment; as we rise to the surface, we hear the traces of much cheerier music. The implication is clear: above the water, everything is just fine; below it, it’s a little more pessimistic. Well, I mean, we could have worked that out. Our heroines are Lisa (Mandy Moore) and Kate (Claire Holt)––two names you’re unlikely ever to forget by the end of the film––and they spend the first half an hour or so cheerfully failing Alison Bechdel’s eponymous test. Lisa has just been discarded by her boyfriend for being “boring”, and is visiting her fun and outgoing sister in Mexico to prove to herself and to her former beau that, well, she isn’t.
Our heroines are Lisa (Mandy Moore) and Kate (Claire Holt)––two names you’re unlikely ever to forget by the end of the film––and they spend the first half an hour or so cheerfully failing Alison Bechdel’s eponymous test. Lisa has just been discarded by her boyfriend for being “boring”, and is visiting her fun and outgoing sister in Mexico to prove to herself and to her former beau that, well, she isn’t.
During an impromptu night on the town replete with all the awful, overproduced summer anthems that implies, the pair meet a couple of local men, and the following day they convince Lisa and Kate to go cage-diving with them off the coast. At first, Lisa isn’t convinced, and at any rate, she says, she has no experience diving. Her manipulative younger sister reminds her why she came down to visit her, and Lisa eventually yields. This worn-out summer horror film setup gets tedious very early on but director and writer Roberts is merciful, and puts us out of our misery almost on the stroke of half an hour, at which point Lisa and Kate adjust their scuba equipment, climb into the shark-cage, and watch the rope attaching them to the boat promptly snap. They tumble forty-seven metres down and land on the sea floor out of range of their friends above water and surrounded by twenty-five-foot great white sharks lurking in the gloom. It is the closest thing sharks will ever get to Deliveroo.
The premise is simple, but Roberts is surprisingly effective at creating an atmosphere of genuine terror. There are the hungry sharks, of course, but there is also the rapidly depleting oxygen supply, the near-blackness of the water and the threat of separation as both women know that if someone doesn’t come for them soon, one of them will have to, so to speak, make a break for the surface, which poses yet another risk: decompression sickness, or ‘the bends’.
Roberts has the restraint not to flood his film with sharks, if you’ll excuse the pun, instead letting the lesser fears build to fever pitch. Equally, he doesn’t resort to the lazy and tedious quiet-quiet-loud formula that has brought so much commercial success to mediocre films and so much romantic success to teenagers on first dates at the cinema.
There’s only a little camera gimmickry from cinematographer Mark Silk, who alternately adopts the perspective of the women in the cage and the point of view of any sharp-toothed creature in the water – looking more than once at a tantalising pair of kicking legs. Sometimes he takes the detached view of a distant underwater observer to emphasise the isolation of the cage (and its temporary inhabitants) on the ocean floor. While Moore and Holt are decent enough, the script is bloody awful, and seems to consist mainly of each one of the two principal characters shouting each other’s names in between frantic breaths, or otherwise offering such illuminating reflections as “we’re going to die” and “oh my God, I’m so scared.” The final third of the film, meanwhile, slips into something like a cinematic rendering of Murphy’s law. To put it another way, anything that can happen, will happen, and that happens over and over (and over) again.
The main success of 47 Metres Down is that even though you know what will happen, it’s intermittently thrilling anyway, and at least one of the plot devices will catch you off guard. It’s for this reason that it would be unfair and untrue to pass the film off as forgettable summer horror: it may not be brilliant, but it’s more than that.