Privileged white women on vacation being terrorized by sharks is one of Hollywood’s favorite genres.
It’s getting so popular that, one year after Blake Lively barely escapes with her life in The Shallows, they announce that Mandy Moore will be next to weather a nautical face-off. At first you think, “Wait, Mandy Moore is seriously doing a shark movie?” And then, instantly: “Of course Mandy Moore is doing a shark movie.”
Hollywood inevitability is a powerful force.
We have seen that shark movie, 47 Meters Down, in which, on a vacation dare by her sister (Claire Holt) to prove she’s not a wet blanket, Mandy Moore agrees to go shark diving in a rickety metal cage off the coast of Mexico.
Said cage breaks (duh), and the most bone-chilling episode of This Is Us yet unfolds on the ocean floor.
It is a good, slightly terrifying, slightly maddening shark movie. We will likely need a week or so before swimming in the ocean again. (Let’s operate in a blissful alternate reality where going to the beach is a regular occurrence for me.) Still, that’s basically all we ever want from a shark movie!
47 Meters Down is not high art. Hell, it’s not even The Shallows, last summer’s surprisingly engrossing survival tale featuring Lively in full badass mode, a jovial seagull, and a stubborn great white.
But it is one of those amazing full-body-engaging movies, where you physically scoff at the implausibility, jump out of your seat at the well-executed spooks—“Ah! There it is again!”—and then laugh at yourself for jumping.
In other words, you get what you came for—plus Mandy Moore.
Annoyingly, this film does have a plot.
Very How Stella Got Her Groove Back-meets-Jaws sprinkled with a surprisingly moving acoustic cover of Rihanna’s “Umbrella,” 47 Meters Down introduces us to Moore’s Lisa, who is in Mexico with her blondes-have-more-fun adventurous sister, Kate, following Lisa’s breakup with this humdrum-sounding Basic B named Stuart.
It’s Kate who convinces Lisa to seize life by the rusted metal cage and go shark diving with some local hotties they meet after a tequila-soaked party montage one night.
As all these films do, 47 Meters Down suffers from the burden of having to feign effort in a pre-shark attack plot, when all anyone wants to see is some good ol’ water thrashing and damsel shrieking.
The script throws us a bone with some cheeky one-liners foreshadowing the forthcoming money shots. “Trust me, once you’re down there you’re not going to want to come back,” the boat’s captain (played by Matthew Modine!) reassures a nervous Lisa. “I could stay down here forever,” says Kate once they’re submerged, getting a hearty LOL from the screening audience.
The thing that makes this not your average Ladies in Bikinis Being Chased By Big Sharks movie is that the harrowing action takes place underwater, so it’s Ladies in Giant Scuba Masks Being Chased By Big Sharks.
The cage’s plummet to the bottom of the ocean, which happens after we’re already introduced to the very large and admirably real-looking sharks, is suitably intense. If there’s one thing director Johannes Roberts nails, it’s the film’s genre. Every action sequence, lurking shark, and “Boo!” fright moment is scored with the perfect blend of thrill and cheesiness. It’s the summer popcorn horror flick done to a campy T.
A change in scenery from the ocean’s surface to its floor actually provides a petrifying playground for the film. The blanket darkness, vastness, and disorientation viscerally instill in you a fear that, in the end, might supersede sharks: being trapped at the bottom of the sea.
And the reason Lisa and Kate are trapped? Science.
At 47 meters deep, they can’t just throw caution to the wind, risk a run-in with the sharks, and make a bolt for the surface. As anyone who has scuba-dived knows, that could give you “the bends,” which, to keep things simplistic, could potentially kill you.
That means that 47 Meters Down isn’t just a horror movie about two girls’ fight against sharks. It’s something much scarier. It’s a fight against AIR!!!
Yes, Lisa and Kate must come up with a solution for freeing themselves from the cage, evading the always-circling sharks, and safely getting to the surface—all while operating with a rapidly diminishing supply of oxygen in their scuba tanks. It’s not just a showdown against some man-eating fish. It’s a showdown against the clock.
In order to make any of this believable, the script has to provide some drive-by scuba science—about oxygen levels, decompression, depth, yada yada yada—that falls closer on the spectrum to sufficient than completely implausible, though my dive master boyfriend will gladly spend a half hour with you explaining what they got wrong about nitrogen narcosis at 45 meters. (Spoiler: They’d be dead, y’all.)
But, of course, rolling your eyes at a summer movie’s junk science is half the fun of a summer movie.
Not so fun? This movie’s goddamn ending.
Most of the film’s third act is a riot. It is brimming with the kinds of nonsense death-be-damned action sequences that this genre of film subsists on, and it’s wonderfully ridiculous and immensely watchable.
Then comes a crazy twist: All the sharks are related! (Jk, jk, This Is Us fans.) We obviously won’t spoil the twist here, other than to say when it happened I am positive they would be able to hear my groan 47 meters down—most likely further below.
Listen, this is not the best shark movie you will ever see. As Kevin O’Keefe at Mic points out, there’s an argument to be made that it’s even a little problematic. Comparing it to Lively’s film, he writes, “47 Meters Down is unbelievably cruel to its protagonist,” while “The Shallows celebrates its protagonist’s victory.”
There’s an inherent misogyny in the kind of torture porn that a film like this can reflexively slide into—and that The Shallows is so good because it transcended—that even extends to the entire thesis of this review: It’s pretty entertaining to watch Mandy Moore get terrorized by a shark.
So I’ll end instead by saying this: There’s a very specific genre that this film is in the canon of, and it is a silly, predictable, and often dismissed genre. I love this genre. And I mostly loved this film. Until the unexpected, unpleasant end. Which I guess is probably how it feels to go scuba diving on vacation and then get bit by a shark.