Summer is the perfect season for escapist B-movies about man-eating killer sharks, the film equivalent to the paperback beach read. The famous marine predators have become a Hollywood industry unto itself. Just add “shark” to a pitch and you got yourself a movie or at least an Asylum movie (the studio behind Sharknado and Sharktopus). 47 Meters Down was originally titled In the Deep and was scheduled to come out on DVD in 2016. It’s low budget, light on stars, and driven by its concept. It’s also not good enough to be good and not bad enough to be enjoyable. It just is.
Lisa (Mandy Moore) and Kate (Claire Holt) are sisters vacationing in Mexico. Kate is wild, Lisa is a bore, and they meet some cute local boys. They all agree to go swimming with sharks in a giant metal cage that will lower five meters into the water. Captain Taylor (Matthew Modine, you bet it is) takes the gang out to the ocean and dumps chum and blood in the water to attract the great whites. The ladies are in the cage, the shark has made itself known, and that’s when the cable snaps. The cage descends the titular 47 meters (approximately 150 feet) onto the ocean floor. The sisters are stranded, trapped with limited oxygen, and there’s a hungry shark waiting to strike.
47 Meters Down has many challenges to overcome and it ultimately falters under the pressure. For starters, having a movie take place almost entirely on the bottom of the ocean provides filming and storytelling limitations. The suspense sequences are going to be restricted because there’s only so much variance that can happen. The geography is also rather murky and it’s very dark in presentation, which means that it’s hard to fully understand what’s happening around the characters. This detracts from implementing suspense sequences that need multiple points of action. Take a sequence in The Shallows, where Blake Lively has to time the shark’s pattern to determine how many seconds she has to retrieve a valuable item in the water. She plunges into the water with the ticking clock letting us know about the impending window of danger. That’s a good arrangement. An audience appreciates being in on the suspense and that requires clarity. 47 Meters Down supplies some immediate mini-goals that feel organic to the situation but it can’t last long. The immediate need to try to get out of the cage supplies a cleanly understood series of goals. They need to remove the debris on top of the cage’s entrance. Before that they need to slip out of the cage. Before that they need to remove their mask in order to fit through the bars, which provides another even more pressing danger.
Beyond that promising early challenge, 47 Meters Down essentially becomes a contained thriller with a boogeyman repeating the same routine. Once this realization settled in I started losing significant interest. Because of the overall murkiness of geography we’re stuck with repetitions of jump scares. A few of them are pretty good as far as jump scares go, but without anything else to subsist upon the tension fades precipitously. It’s the aquatic equivalent of a big scary monster jumping out of the dark and yelling, “Boo.” In moderation and with effective setup, this is fine. When it’s all you have then diminishing returns is to be expected. 47 Meters Down supplies cinematic “fetch quests” for the characters to leave the relatively safe confines of their station, but the larger particulars are never fleshed out efficiently. Much of the second act involves a character having to leave the cage to grab something and worrying about the shark appearing out of nowhere. The hypothetical omnipresent nature of the killer shark is meant to foster a claustrophobic sense of anxiety. Instead it achieves the opposite. I grew bored wondering what random moment the shark was going to rear its CGI head.
The third act goes into a more mainstream action-survival mode and supplies the heroics that mass audiences have come to expect. The problem is that 47 Meters Down tries to have it all and actually loses everything in a misapplied series of endings. This is one of the most egregious cases since A.I. of a movie not knowing when to call it quits. Kate and Lisa are given the bare minimum of back-story before being thrown to the sharks (Lisa just got dumped for not being spontaneous enough so… swimming with sharks… to prove the ex wrong… that she still wants back?). They’re mostly annoying and whiny, and perhaps I have a heart of stone but I was indifferent to whether or not they became shark food.
Then when the third act rolls around (spoilers to follow), Lisa decides to take charge and becomes an action movie heroine. She’s active and rescues her injured sister, swims to the surface, and even kills a shark after it chomps down on her leg twice. It feels like a climactic finish and serves at least as a modest endpoint for Lisa’s character arc, going from meek to assertive. Then Lisa notices the blood floating from her cut hand and it’s revealed, twist, that everything relating to the escape was a hallucination caused by nitrogen narcosis. Captain Taylor was worried that switching to another oxygen tank would be too much for the ladies and produce strange behavior and hallucinations. If the movie decided to end at this point then it could have worked. However, 47 Meters Down unwisely keeps moving for a needless resolution that left me staggered. Lisa is rescued by faceless Coast Guard diving members and brought to the surface. That’s it. Dear reader, what’s the point of having a dark twist ending if she’s just rescued immediately? For that matter, why even have the twist then if she’s going to be rescued? Why not just keep the earlier sequence where she gets her heroic moments of action? The filmmakers replaced an ending where the protagonist is active with one where she is passive. That’s not a satisfying decision and it erases Lisa’s entire agency as a character (end spoilers).
There’s also a massive plot hole in how exactly are Kate and Lisa able to hear anything? Astute audience members will notice that there is no listening device in either woman’s pair of ears and their scuba helmets cut off their ears. How can they hear anything? A simple fix would have been just literally having a speaker in their ear like local newscasters. This way the illusion would not be broken and it would also allow the filmmakers to directly communicate with their actors while underwater. It’s win-win. Maybe they can introduce in-ear speakers for the sequel, 48 Meters Down.
If you need to beat the heat this summer for 90 minutes, you could do worse than venturing into the shark-infested waters of 47 Meters Down. The visuals are pretty grimy and indistinct but it does offer the occasional thrill, though to stark diminishing returns. I would advise everyone to instead just watch The Shallows, a superior shark thriller with natural style, tautly wound suspense sequences, and the luxury of an emotionally compelling character arc to go along with the benefits of a sun-kissed Blake Lively. If anything, this feels like the Asylum knockoff on The Shallows. Audiences with a deep abiding fear of the water or killer sharks may find enough entertainment to be had, but for everyone else 47 Meters Down is an exercise in treading water.
Nate’s Grade: C
Let me take a moment to dispel an expectation amplified by the movie’s first trailer: The Shallows is not the Blake Lively Butt movie you may have imagined. It would not be uncommon for this kind of setup to indulge in the forays of exploitation cinema, but aside from a few shots of Lively on her surfboard, The Shallows is surprisingly free of anything that would constitute leering T&A. Lively even wears her swimming vest to stay warm for the far majority of the movie. I cite this because I want to congratulate the movie on its accomplishments but also assure those wary from the trailer that The Shallows is much more than a tawdry genre movie with a bikini-clad blonde in sexy peril.
After losing her mother to cancer, Nancy (Lively) drops out of school and runs off to Mexico to retreat from her cruel reality. She finds a hidden beach few others know about but was a special place to her dearly departed mother. Nancy takes her surfboard out and happily soaks up the beautiful scenery. Her respite from reality is broken when a shark bites her in her thigh. Panicked, she finds refuge on a small rock sticking out of the water, though vulnerable to high tides. Nancy has to use all her strength and wits to observe the shark and her surroundings and make an escape before her injury gets too bad.
The Shallows is an excellently paced and plotted survival thriller that keeps its audience involved from the start. I greatly enjoy survival thrillers that think step-by-step with the characters in their on screen predicaments, and every move made in The Shallows follows a logical progression that is intellectually satisfying. It helps that Nancy is a med school dropout and thinks through how best to keep herself alive with the tools that she has. She uses a pair of earrings as sutures. She uses her swimming vest as a tourniquet. She uses her watch to time the seconds it takes for the shark to swim in a perimeter. She is a smart and able heroine who assesses the situation in a manner that makes her a strong protagonist we root for until the very end. It’s also a smart device to have her calmly narrate her desperate medical improvisations as if she were treating a patient, a role-playing exercise meant to make her more objective and to ease her fear. It also provides a credible reason for Nancy to talk out loud. There’s also a seagull that Nancy bonds with, an injured bird marooned on the same small strip of rock. The bird deserves second billing as it has more screen time than any other human short of Lively. It’s not exactly a Wilson-kind of relationship necessity but if you’re like me you’ll feel enough bouts of dread and distress whenever that dumb bird is placed in dangerous scenarios.
Screenwriter Anthony Jawswinski (Kristy) makes every part of his story in play, and he even provides acceptable answers when plot holes do seem to appear. Take for instance my biggest initial question: why is this shark so obsessed with Nancy when it has a massive whale carcass to feast upon? I have a similar complain in all sorts of movies where the predator gives up the larger meal for the possibility of the smaller meal (the new King Kong and Star Trek both come to mind). Why give up a guaranteed food source? I could successfully ignore this plot hole for the most part since it’s essential to the conflict of human vs. shark, and then the script produces an answer. She’s in its feeding ground; this isn’t about food, this is about territory. That’s fair. I felt a similar quibble when this one seagull never flew away from Nancy’s rock. It makes sense to give her a companion to at least allow some one-way dialogue. Then it’s revealed the bird as a separated shoulder and is flightless, stranded too like its new friend. This presents a mini-goal for Nancy to accomplish and provides an accomplishment to carry her over. The only plot hole that stuck was Nancy explaining she’d just hail an Uber to get home from this secret beach in Mexico. I don’t think hey have many drivers in the area, lady. I was impressed with Jawswinski’s ability to develop his conflicts and utilize his surroundings. Every item introduced in this small location will be used at some point. Making use of previously introduced materials produces a string of payoffs, ensuring more fun.
The technical elements are stunning, adding extra impact to the well-crafted suspense. Director Jaume Collett-Sera (Non-Stop, Run All Night) really draws out the tension, letting an audience simmer in discomfort. I know a movie has me when I start nervously tapping my leg, anticipating something bad at any moment. I was tapping often with The Shallows. The initial first strike is chaotic and frightening, leaving Nancy the morbid option of climbing atop a rotting whale body for momentary safety. Then there’s timing the shark’s laps to determine how much time she has retrieving floating items from her rock. We’re given the setup and Collett-Sera nicely goes from there. Even the requisite “chatting with the family” scene meant to impart enough exposition for our character’s starting point is given some flash thanks to onscreen graphics. The cinematography is absolutely gorgeous, especially the prolonged underwater sequences. If it wasn’t for the perturbed killer shark this could work as a vacation ad for this Mexican beach (it was really filmed in Australia). The editing, the music, the special effects, it all blends seamlessly together to construct a thrilling and stylish summer movie.
I’ll admit that there was a long dry spell for Lively after her mesmerizing turn in 2010’s The Town, enough so that I wondered if she was just coasting for good. Then with last year’s underrated Age of Adaline she reminded me there’s a capable actress here. It’s a one-woman show and Lively does a terrific job of anchoring her character while playing to all the shrieks and startles of the genre requirements. Her depleted mental and physical state is effectively communicated and her surge of purpose in Act Three is infectious. Her tearful “final message” in case she didn’t make it had me almost dabbing my eyes. It’s heartfelt and sorrowful without being too corny. There is an actual character here and a performance that treats her seriously and not merely as a tasty afterthought. There are far worse people in Hollywood to be stuck on a rock with than Bake Lively.
In a summer of disappointments, I’ll gladly take the simple pleasures of a contained thriller that’s as well developed, exciting, and as satisfying as The Shallows. It’s smart, often suspenseful, and boasting great technical accolades to make this harrowing survival drama all the more immersive and enjoyable. There is an escalation of tension and director Collett-Sera keeps the audience oriented throughout the terror so we know exactly what the stakes are of every life and death decision. It taps into a primal fear of humans versus Mother Nature in a way that feels smothering. Lively anchors the film and provides a thinking heroine who can also get the job done when the action calls upon her. The ending confrontation gets a little extreme and curiously vindictive for an animal, but by that point I was enjoying the movie far too much to argue. The Shallows isn’t too deep but it’s the kind of slickly produced and developed B-movie that I’ll happily indulge.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Piranha 3D was a horror movie that knew exactly what it was doing, and good gravy it did it well. Here was a horror comedy that brilliantly provided campy thrills, over-the-top mayhem, salacious T&A, and a jubilant sense of humor. It was a glorious 1980s-esque exploitation film adapted to modern times. In the wake of Piranha 3D came the pitiful Shark Night 3D, which was marketed with a similar celebratory exploitation angle. Besides the unifying aquatic threat, the two movies, however, couldn’t be any more different. Shark Night 3D is to Piranha 3D what Branson, Missouri is to Vegas.
It’s spring break on the Bayou, and seven friends are heading out to Sara Palski’s (Sara Paxton) family house on the lake. Nick (Dustin Milligan) has a full course load as a pre-Med major, so he’s looking to relax and finally make a move with his crush on Sara. Along for the ride are geeky Gordon (Joel David Moore), future NFL first-round pick Malik (Sinqua Walls), his girlfriend Maya (Alyssa Diaz), the rebellious party girl Beth (Katherine McPhee), and her ex-boyfriend, the self-absorbed Blake (Chris Zylka). Their revelry is interrupted when they discover that the lake is filled with all kinds of sharks. A group of menacing local rednecks terrorizes the gang and plan to feed them to the sharks.
What this movie reminds me of are the watered down soft-core “comedies” that used to grace the late night airwaves on the cable channel USA. Somebody had the bright idea to take movies that were primarily made to titillate with casual T&A; when you strip away those base exploitation elements, which in this case was sex and nudity, then you’re left with 90 minutes of strained filler and really flat jokes. That’s what Shark Night 3D (in non-3D) feels like. Ignoring the fact that Paxton (Last House on the Left) runs around in a bikini for 90 percent of the movie, the film is lacking guts of all kinds. The closest you’ll get to skin is some brief side boob from American Idol alum, and quizzically ever-present actress, Katherine McPhee (The House Bunny). I want to state for the record that giving McPhee a nose stud and some lower back tattoos is the unconvincing PG-13 translation of making her into a “bad girl.” I wouldn’t be as miffed about the omission of the exploitation elements if the movie presented a compelling story or some well-orchestrated suspense sequences. It presents itself as an exploitation film, replete with plenty of underwater POV shots of bikini bottoms but it pulls back at every opportunity, cruelly teasing the audience with the promise of something better, but better never comes.
Its ideas of suspense revolve around lame jump scares and quickly resolved sequences where characters are picked off by the sharks. The movie sets up a dramatic scenario and doesn’t waste much time. Characters get picked off with mordant efficiency, and yet there’s no pizazz to these deaths, no memorable or gruesome moments. Hope you like seeing people pulled under red water. Unlike Deep Blue Sea, an enjoyable campy outing, these sharks are just regular sharks and yet they behave like genetically engineered killing machines, leaping out of the water to snatch prey at high altitudes. They even know how to break an onboard motor, which sounds like the work of a shark suicide bomber. There’s never really a great explanation for why the sharks are even doing in a lake. Granted, it’s stated to be a salt water lake and spillovers from high waters have been known to deposit oceanic creatures inland, but then the dumb redneck characters take credit for the shark attacks. They say they put them in the lake. I don’t believe this for a second, nor do I believe that these goons are secretly clever when it comes to advanced technology. Their whole scheme, which includes one of them philosophizing about “moral relativism,” is completely unbelievable, as well as their crazy get rich quick scheme.
If you’re not going to deliver the goods, at least don’t pretend that your sharks-eat-college-kids horror movie is some serious work of art. Sadly, the thing that can save any low-rent horror movie, a sense of humor, is noticeably absent with Shark Night 3D. It goes all the way in the other direction, trying to churn serious drama out of ridiculous situations. Characters are prone to delivering long monologues that let us know how scared they are or of some past trauma. Sara is haunted by a drowning scare that put an irreconcilable rift between her and her ex-boyfriend, who happens to be one of the sinister rednecks. The stupid melodrama in this movie is played completely poker-faced serious. When one male character loudly bellows that his girlfriend, who died via shark, was the most important thing in his world, it’s something of a head-scratcher. Before this lady fell victim to nefarious shark attack, we knew next to nothing about her beyond superficial descriptions, namely her race and her designation as “girlfriend.” We don’t even see anything of this so-called relationship, so when the feeding frenzy starts and the characters start getting picked off, the wails of drama are comically misplaced. When that character tries to go back into the water to attain vengeance against the animal that took his woman (“They took one of ours, now I’m gonna take one of theirs”), it feels absurd and hilarious. The movie hasn’t even done a credible job to make us believe the significance of the character relationships.
The screenplay by Will Hayes and Jesse Studenberg relies on stock roles almost to a degree of self-parody (the athlete, the smart wet blanket, the doofus, the virginal girl next door, the vampy girl – hey Cabin in the Woods, I got your lineup right here). You would think given the scenario of shark-infested waters, all you had to do was remain on land. The old chestnut about cell phone signals is here again, but I refuse to believe that Sara’s family house does not have a landline phone. I thought maybe for one shining moment Shark Night 3D would move into an unexpected direction, and then it didn’t. After our first shark victim struggles to pull through, our med student Nick takes charge. I thought it would have been great during this moment, when we fully expect Nick to be indispensable given his medical knowledge, that he gets eaten by a shark. Alas, my dreams of convention upheaval were not to be met. If you can’t predict every twist and turn the movie makes, including the heroic sacrifice and the “twist” betrayal, then you haven’t lived long enough to move on from the kiddie pool.
Shark Night 3D is a schlocky, tiresome, neutered exploitation film missing the elements that make exploitation films worth watching. After a while, it just becomes exasperating. This movie is 90 minutes of being lead around without a payoff. It wants to be a fun, campy movie, but then why does it take itself so seriously and lack the slightest sense of humor? It wants to be considered amongst exploitation horror movies, with nubile teens being stalked in their bikini bottoms below the murky depths, but then why does the movie pull back at every opportunity for sex and gore? Shark Night 3D is a movie that will appeal to no one. If you want thrills and chills, you’ll be disappointed. If you want T&A, you’ll be disappointed. If you want some good shark action, you’ll be disappointed. If you want a workable story and characters worth rooting for, you’ll be disappointed. If you love sharks, you’ll be disappointed, which is a real disappointment. The only people who won’t be disappointed will be the people who grew up on those late-night USA cut-for-TV soft core flicks. To those few people in their bubbles of ignorance, Shark Night 3D might be the best movie they’ve ever seen.
Nate’s Grade: D