47 Meters Down: Deep Shit, by Tyler Smith
It would be wrong to talk about Johannes Roberts’ film 47 Meters Down in terms of more serious fare, like Moonlight or Manchester by the Sea. It’s not that kind of film. It is a shark movie and should thus be compared to other shark movies. So, based on that criteria, I’ll say that 47 Meters Down makes The Shallows look like Open Water, Open Water look like Jaws, and Jaws look like the absolute pinnacle of all human endeavor. The film takes a decent premise and, appropriately, drowns it in clumsy exposition and truly horrendous dialogue. It wasn’t just bad; it was astonishingly bad.
The story involves two sisters (Mandy Moore and Claire Holt) on vacation in Mexico. Lisa (Moore) has recently been dumped by her boyfriend for being too boring, so Kate (Holt) pushes her to be more adventurous. They are invited aboard an old boat that takes tourists to shark-infested waters, giving them scuba gear and lowering them in an old rusty cage into the water to see the sharks up close. Once under water, Lisa and Kate marvel at the beauty of these giant great white sharks. Soon, though, a winch comes loose and the cage goes tumbling down to the ocean floor. The sisters are quickly running out of oxygen, with 47 meters of shark-infested ocean separating them from safety.
It’s odd how many shark-related movies have to do with being stranded. I suppose it’s inevitable, as the best way to avoid being eaten by a shark is to avoid the ocean and just stay home, or, if you’re already in the ocean, getting out and going home. It is this second scenario that most shark movies opt to explore, with the main characters’ ability to leave taken away early on. Many of these films are ultimately as much about basic survival as they are creature features, and 47 Meters Down is no different. The sharks might be scary, but the loss of oxygen is just as much of a threat, if not more so.
Now if only the filmmaker were willing to allow the audience to draw this conclusion on their own.
Instead, the majority of the dialogue is functional at best and downright insulting at worst. It is established that the oxygen supply becomes dangerous below “50 bar”. Every time the characters look at their oxygen gauge, the number readout is lower. This would be a nice visual representation of their predicament (and a clever variation on the “ticking clock” concept) were it not for the characters’ constant exclaiming of “We’re running out of oxygen!” Toward the end of the film, Lisa’s gauge is down to only “5 bar”, causing her to declare, “I’m almost out of air!” It got to the point that the people in my theater – some critics, some regular moviegoers – were laughing whenever the characters restated the direness of their circumstances. And to have an audience laugh at the exact moment that they should be on the edge of their seat is a pretty good indicator that the filmmaker has made a gross miscalculation somewhere.
But if the dialogue were merely obvious, the film could still be salvaged. Plenty of effective horror movies have unremarkable, on-the-nose scripts. 47 Meters Down, however, is in a class all its own in its clunkiness. For example, at some point, Lisa assures Kate that they just need to stay put until the coast guard arrives. That’s the word she uses: “Arrives”. Later, Kate narrowly escapes being taken by a shark, explaining that she “managed to get away”. “Managed”. These aren’t exactly complex words, but they aren’t commonly said, either. These are words that are often written, but rarely spoken. To hear people actually say them – and in the midst of a crisis situation – was startling. It all just felt so… false.
It would take a herculean effort of even the best actors to make this dialogue work, and neither Mandy Moore nor Claire Holt are anywhere near the best. I’m more familiar with Moore’s work and have found her to be quite effective in the right role (as in Saved or Tangled), but here she is completely out of her element. Holt does seem to do a bit more with her character, making her more obviously assertive, but the character still seems generic and unmemorable. And poor Matthew Modine, who plays the ship’s captain, is only there to perpetually restate the stakes and dangers, always warning them about “the bends”, which, while genuinely life-threatening, doesn’t exactly strike fear into the heart of the viewer.
Don’t get me wrong; there are some solid choices here. Johannes Roberts’ decision to only ever keep the audience under the water, never really knowing what the boat captain and his crew are doing topside, is a good one. This does more to put us in the sisters’ emotional state than dozens of declarative statements about how scared they are. There are also some good scares and a fairly nice fake-out, which was effective despite having been so obviously set up minutes earlier. But these moments of genuine tension are few and far between, and in the interim is some of the most inane chatter and eye-rolling character development you’re likely to hear in a theater this year.
A friend recently stated that even the best directors cannot transcend a bad script. I’m inclined to disagree, as a good filmmaker can still utilize cinematography and editing (not to mention music, art direction, and all the other elements that go into a film) to create a memorable and effective tone. I still believe that, but 47 Meters Down is a pretty damn good argument that, no matter how much artistry a director can bring to a film, an awful script will only ever allow him to get to a certain point. Even the most hard-earned tension will evaporate with just one line of awful, laugh-inducing dialogue. And this film has hundreds.