Wednesday 25 May 2016

47 Meters Down

Director: Johannes Roberts
Writers: Johannes Roberts, Ernest Fiera
Producers: James Harris, Mark Lane
Cast: Claire Holt, Mandy Moore, Matthew Modine
Country: UK
Year of release: 2016
Reviewed from: trade screening

Following hot on the heels of The Other Side of the Door (due to the vagaries of distribution schedules) comes Johannes Roberts’ tenth feature, and arguably his best. 47 Meters Down takes a very simple premise and runs with it, to genuinely terrifying effect.

Claire Holt (The Vampire Diaries) and Mandy Moore (Tangled) are sisters Kate and Lisa. The former is the wild, free-living, risk-taking, not-settling-down type; the latter is the sensible one in a long-term relationship. Which has just ended unhappily, the unseen Stuart accusing Lisa of being boring. A holiday in Mexico with her sister should offer some solace but also a chance for Lisa to show Stuart that she’s more free-spirited than he gave her credit for.

Which is why, after a night of drinking and dancing with two local lads, the girls agree to a trip out to sea for a shark cage-based close encounter. Matthew Modine (The Haunting of Radcliffe House) is Taylor, skipper of the unprepossessing boat with its rusty cage and creaking winch. This is very much not an approved, certificated tourist excursion and Lisa has qualms about both the sharks and the operation, which Kate allays through sisterly – but irresponsible – persuasion.

Inside the cage, lowered to a depth of five metres, the sisters have some stunning but scary views of great whites, attracted by a chum bucket of offal. And thus we come to the end of act one and the predictable cable snap, sending the cage down to the titular depth.

So here’s the predicament. Kate (an experienced scuba diver) and Lisa (new to the underwater realm) are in a rusty cage, surrounded by assorted pieces of broken winch, with a limited air supply – reducing even faster than normal because of their panicked state. The blue water above them has at least two enormous sharks swimming around in it, and a dash for the surface is out of the question because they would get the bends. You don’t really want a slow ascent with a five-minute pause halfway when huge predators are circling.

Can Taylor and his Mexican crew get to them? Can they even be trusted to try, given the dodgy nature of the enterprise? No-one else knows the girls even went out on this boat. Also, they are just out of radio range, which means intermittent communication with Taylor is only possible by briefly swimming up a few metres. So if the boat did decide to leave, they wouldn’t even know.

Roberts and his regular co-writer Ernest Riera wring every ounce of nerve-shredding tension out of this situation. The ticking clock of the air supply, the uncertain reliability of the boat crew and their equipment, the ever-present threat of the great whites. This is an extraordinarily scary, claustrophobic film and one that will have you on the edge of your seat, alternately gasping and whimpering.

The relationship between the sisters is well-defined and it’s to the film’s credit that Ernest and Jo felt no need to include any sort of “I slept with your boyfriend” revelation. There’s enough going on here without adding relationship woes, and besides the sisters’ only chance of survival is working together and helping each other.

And yet, in a sense, there’s relatively little going on here. There are several action sequences, such as a trip across the ocean floor to retrieve a flashlight, but it is surprising at the end of the film to realise quite how few and far between are the actual appearances by any sharks. And that’s a Good Thing. It is the threat of the sharks that drives the terror of both characters and audience. When a shark does appear it’s swift and sudden and terrifying but much, much more than a simple, cheesy cat-scare. That’s what sharks do – they swim fast through the opaque water, suddenly appearing with mouths full of “many teeth, dear”. (Although, despite what that song claims, sharks are not known for their dental hygiene. They don’t really need to, given that they have multiple rows of teeth, constantly moving forward to replace lost ones.)

Putting today’s marine biology lesson aside, what impresses – really impresses – is Jo’s direction. For most of the film he has only two characters, in a single tight location, their faces partially obscured (fortunately they have different hair colours and outfits), their surrounding environment an amorphous haze and no actual sharks on screen. Yet the film remains visually gripping, a situation greatly assisted by the frankly awesome cinematography of underwater specialist Mark Silk.

Now, there have been a lot of dumb shark films made in recent years. If you’re not sure quite how many, take a look at the three-part blog I wrote for Hemlock Books last year here, here and here – and bear in mind that this is already out-of-date, failing to include such low-grade tripe as Shark Exorcist, Sharkenstein and Sharkansas Women’s Prison Massacre (no, seriously). 47 Meters Down belongs to that much rarer cinematic subgenre, the intelligent shark movie. This is a film that doesn’t have to actually show the sharks to be scary; not because of any fear of audiences seeing through the effects, it should be stressed. The great whites seen here (and indeed all other passing fish) are completely credible, authentic-looking CGI creations.

47 Meters Down proves that it is possible to make a genuinely frightening, serious, intelligently plotted, shark-based horror movie. In fact, I would venture to suggest that this is probably the best shark movie since Jaws – and certainly the scariest. There have been a handful of other intelligent shark movies but none of those have milked the horror potential of the subgenre as successfully as this picture.

Interestingly, the film this most closely resembles isn’t a shark film, it’s The Descent – and not just because of the female cast (discussion of the errant ex-boyfriend notwithstanding, this has no problem passing the Bechdel test). In a review of The Descent in Video Watchdog, which I quoted in my book Urban Terrors, it was noted that the film featured hot actresses in skin-tight outfits yet pointedly refused to objectify them. 47 Meters Down achieves the same laudable goal, avoiding the same easy win.

More than its gender credentials, Roberts’ film resembles Neil Marshall’s in its claustrophobia – the cage is a tiny haven of safety among the blue – and in the way that the situation gets progressively worse, danger piling on additional danger as vestiges of hope are dashed away in gut-wrenching succession. Marshall’s six women were trapped underground by a cave-in and nobody knew they were there and there were subhuman crawlers hunting them down. Jo’s two sisters are trapped at the bottom of the sea and nobody knows they’re there (except Matthew Modine and his crew of questionable honesty) and there are some 20-feet long specimens of Carcharodon carcharias prowling around.

There is also, like The Descent, [spoilers on] a ‘false rescue’, somewhat unsubtly presaged with a Chekhov’s gun comment from Taylor about the danger of nitrogen narcosis-induced hallucination. While it’s apparent, as we watch the sisters make it back to the boat with a good 20 minutes to run, that this isn’t real (unless the film has an extraordinarily lengthy credit crawl…), that doesn’t in any way distract from the very real terror of their ascent and their struggle to make it on board, which is one of the most seat-grippingly scary sequences in the whole movie. A coda of Mexican coastguard divers finally arriving provides the sort of upbeat ending that US audiences (or at least, US distributors) demand. But by fading to black before the surface is reached, Jo allows us to retain the very real possibility that this too is inside our heroine’s mind and no more real than the previous escape. Thus the film offers both the ‘real world trap condenses into mind trap’ existentialist nihilism of The Descent’s original ending, and also the pat ‘with one bound she was free’ resolution of The Descent’s American ending [spoilers off] for those who want it.

And, like The Descent, one watches this film thinking: “Why in God’s name would you even do that?” Why would anyone in their right mind go potholing? Why would anyone with any sense get into a shark cage, even a good one booked through a legitimate tour operator? I mean, I love sharks as much as the next man (a shout out here to Bite-Back, the shark conservation charity which thoroughly deserves your support) but if I want to get up close to them I can do that at the Sea Life Centre, thank you very much. Their glass tunnel is completely safe, requires no specialised equipment or training – and there’s a gift shop at the far end of it. That’s the sensible option right there.

Of course, if Kate and Lisa had sensibly decided not to go out on Taylor’s boat, there would have been no movie. Or, looked at another way, the movie would have been 90 minutes of Mandy Moore and Claire Holt sunning themselves by a pool. Which, now I think about, you know, would also have worked for me…

Produced by the ‘Tea Shop and Film Company’ duo of James Harris and Mark Lane (Tower Block, Cockneys vs Zombies) for Dimension Films, some of the underwater scenes were shot in a big tank at Pinewood Studios. Exteriors and surface shots were filmed in July/August 2015 in the more glamorous locale of the Dominican Republic where this was the first production in the big new water tank facility there. Although one might assume that the nominal stars don't actually appear too much after act one, aside from close-ups where you can see their faces, and perhaps spent much of the shoot warm and dry in an ADR studio. in fact both actresses spent a lot of time in the water, for which props should undoubtedly be given. Nevertheless, credit where it’s due so a tip of the hat also to ‘dive doubles’ Zoe Masters, Elspeth Rodgers and Jenny Stock (I think there was a fourth dive double, but only those three are listed on the IMDB). Only in a couple of shots are the 'actors' as CGI as the sharks and you won't spot those.

Tower Block director James Nunn was first AD, a duty he also performed on F (as well as numerous other BHR titles) and also shot second unit. A terrific score by North American duo tomanandy (Sinister 2, Resident Evil sequels) keeps the atmosphere charged throughout, abetted by corking sound design by Alex Joseph (Tower Block, Green Street 3). Production design by David Bryan (The Other Side of the Door), make-up effects by Kristyan Mallett (Howl), editing by Martin Brinkler (Storage 24) – all top-notch. Outpost FX were responsible for the absolutely enormous amounts of visual effects; basically everything underwater except actors, cage and props is created in a computer while lots of other CGI disguises the fact that this was all shot in, effectively, a big swimming pool.

During post-production the title was briefly changed to In the Deep and that was on the print which was screened (twice) at Cannes in May 2016 (actually it was Johannes Roberts’ In the Deep, but who could begrudge him the possessory credit?). However it has subsequently been confirmed that the film will revert to the shooting title (with that American spelling) on release, probably to avoid confusion with a US-Aussie film called Into the Deep, set for a UK DVD release in September. That is also about people trapped in a shark cage but it looks like a found footage movie (yawn) and so probably not something we need to concern ourselves with and certainly no real competition except among that key audience demographic, people who don’t pay attention when buying DVDs in Asda. The IMDB currently lists a Dutch release date of September 2016 for 47 Meters Down but who knows where they got that from or how accurate it is.

MJS rating: A


  1. Most of the underwater scenes were shot in a big tank at The Underwater Studio in Basildon, Essex. None were shot at Pinewood studios in the UK

  2. Very little ADR was required, God knows how they did it but it is truly impressive.

  3. As a diver I loved the movie! The good: Real feel of the depth and darkness. Thats what 45m down looks like folks. Its very acurate! Let's get technical for a moment though. Those girls were breathing WAY too hard to have their air last for so long. They would have narked their tits in a twist in the first 3min at that depth!

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  5. To the anonymous person whose comment began "i just watched the movie and...". Thanks for posting, but a lot of people are looking forward to this movie so please don't discuss the ending, dude!

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    1. Please, if you've seen this, avoid discussion of, or speculation about the ending. If you want to do that, please do it somewhere else, or wait until after the film has been released.