47 Meters Down (2017) ★★½

You might think it coincidental that the new killer shark movie 47 Meters Down was pulled from a video on demand release last August around the same time the girl-in-a-bikini-fights-shark movie The Shallows was crossing the 100 million dollar mark, but you’d probably be wrong. After all, 47 Meters Down has two girls in bikinis, and you can’t really blame Entertainment Studios for seeing possibilities in the shape of dollar signs by going for a wide release, especially after the taste of blood in the water led to a veritable feast for Sony Pictures, earning back six times what The Shallows cost to make. Unfortunately this film pales in comparison, and belongs in the land of streaming services, offering up a loathsome character story for its two vacationing sisters that cannot even pass the Bechdel test, before making up some lost ground, albeit too little too late, for a semi-impressive finish, at the titular distance underwater.

Mandy Moore and Claire Holt play Lisa and Kate, two sisters taking some much needed down time in Mexico, to enjoy the sun and the sand and the requisite scant clothing. For Lisa, it’s more of a recuperation, after being dumped by her boyfriend because she is too boring, and that’s the extent of the conversation these two women have, this and that about her ex-boyfriend. Ultimately, when the subject of deep sea cage diving comes up, Kate speculates that the pictures they will take will show him that she is not boring, and uses it to help Lisa overcome her fear of the water. They meet a couple of guys, who take them out on a boat with Matthew Modine (looking lost and unnecessary) and are soon descending underwater in a cage, when the winch breaks and they fall to the bottom with a finite amount of air in their tanks, and as they soon find out, sharks in the water. It is without a doubt the dumbest possible set up, so much that just beginning the film under the water would have been preferable, and not characterized our heroine as an extension of a man who is not even onscreen, which just makes her seem weak, and the endless scenes of wailing and crying to come all the more annoying.

Even down below, Kate is forced to use Lisa’s boyfriend to get her to perform basic lifesaving tasks. It’s pathetic, and takes away from the brief moments of tension director Johannes Roberts (The Other Side Of The Door) is able to create around their situation. Bits of inspired action involve them attempting to swim far enough up to get within radio distance so they can talk to Modine and get instructions, and suffer through a failed attempt to hoist the cage back up to the surface. But aside from the visceral impact of these scenes there is zero support in the character department; I don’t care at all about these two, or about Lisa’s ability to overcome her fears of the deep. Very quickly 47 Meters Down becomes solely about its inventions in a time of crisis, with the dwindling oxygen tanks providing a great ticking clock for the narrative. But technical proficiency aside, it’s all in vain if the characters aren’t there. By way of comparison, Blake Lively’s character in The Shallows was on the verge of quitting medical school over the death of her mother, and while it’s not perfect exposition, and a tad thin and convenient when she uses her knowledge to patch up a wound, it’s a serviceable enough approach, defining her as strong and independent, and someone an audience can rally behind. Whining about a boyfriend is just tired and lazy, typical writing from a male perspective, and it never should have gone into production.

Perhaps contributing to my general apathy towards the characters is the fact that at the same time the film is ramping up in action and intensity, Lisa and Kate completely disappear inside their wetsuits and behind their oxygen masks. By its nature water erases body language, forcing every movement, however reactive, into a slow undulation, and the inability to see the actors’ lips moving, or even capture a line of sight greatly diminishes the dramatic impact. This is a very easy film to make, with the underwater camera and the oxygen masks guaranteeing a non-sync soundtrack, and the dawning realization that everything you are hearing is post-production puts the film at a disadvantage when it was already trying to come back from the dead, and Roberts does not do a very good job of overcoming these limitations, instead putting complete faith in his own screenplay and just filming the action.

As shark movies go you could certainly do better, but you could also do worse. If you can forgive Roberts’ inability to support his actors with a worthwhile story, there are some exciting moments waiting in the second half. Spending most of the movie trapped inside a cage at the bottom of the ocean is an intriguing and original premise for shark horror, which The Shallows apparently has made trendy and lucrative once again. As long as filmmakers keep trying to find different directions to take, and heaven forbid we don’t end up with a Jaws remake, films like 47 Meters Down are harmless enough for a ninety minute timewaster, but with the variety of platforms these days, without a solid enough screenplay, things like this should never see the inside of a theater.

The Verdict: Pan