47 METERS DOWN poster | ©2017 Dimension Films

47 METERS DOWN poster | ©2017 Dimension Films

Rating: PG-13
Stars: Claire Holt, Mandy Moore, Matthew Modine
Writers: Johannes Roberts & Ernest Riera
Director: Johannes Roberts
Distributor: Dimension Films/Entertainment Studios Motion Pictures
Release Date: June 16, 2017

 The original JAWS is rightly a classic, but since then audiences have learned to be wary of shark movies. SHARKNADO gonzo parody aside, they can be a cheesy bunch, with 2004’s destabilizing OPEN WATER a rare exception. Well, surprise. 47 METERS DOWN has most of the makings of a first-rate horror movie: a plausible set-up, multiple sources of jeopardy, an environment that’s terrifying all on its own, ace special effects and great cinematography. The only problem – one that looms larger as the action proceeds – is dialogue that is both tin-eared and unnecessary.

American sisters Lisa (Mandy Moore) and Kate (Claire Holt) are on vacation in Mexico together. Lisa is reeling from a bad break-up and raging self-doubt. Kate, confident and adventurous, is trying to break Lisa out of her funk. When some locals suggest a dive in a shark cage, Kate thinks this is a great idea and Lisa eventually capitulates. The dive operator (Matthew Modine) runs a small operation, but he and his team know where to find Great White sharks off the coast. When Kate and Lisa initially descend together in the shark cage, it’s thrilling. Then – no spoiler to anybody who has seen the 47 METERS DOWN trailer – the winch breaks, sending the cage plummeting to the sea floor with the women inside. With limited oxygen, spotty communication with the surface, darkness all around, to say nothing of multiple Great Whites, it’s a harrowing predicament.

47 METERS DOWN has many fine qualities. One of these is the ease with which the disaster unfolds. There are no villains with baroque motivations here, only gear that’s a little more worn than anybody notices, and the real diver dangers of running out of oxygen or contracting the bends.

Then there are the sharks. Real Great White sharks generally eat one seal every few days. Horror movies tend to depict them as swallowing adult humans every ten minutes or so. Here, the sharks behave naturally. The peril is not so much repeated attacks from one shark that ought to be sated, but the fact that there are multiple sharks in the area, and that blood frequently spills into the water. The sharks also look and move well, solo and in concert with one another.

Finally, director Johannes Roberts, who co-wrote the script with Ernest Riera, makes excellent, unnerving use of space and stillness. There are moments when characters are suspended in the deep, not knowing where they are or what may be just out of their line of sight. There’s no contrivance here, just a reminder of how terrifying nature can be.

So what’s the problem? The dialogue isn’t just banal, it’s obvious and repetitive. Moore, who is generally good in her characterization and certainly gives her all physically, is made to whimper “I’m so scared” so many times that it’s hard to imagine what was going through the filmmakers’ minds. Lisa and Kate’s plight is so fraught that the line doesn’t need to be uttered at all for us to comprehend it. Then the bends are explained again and again. Once is helpful for the uninitiated, twice is a valid reminder, but after that, it starts to pile up. For all the warnings about decompression sickness, nobody seems concerned about Lisa and Kate using up oxygen by talking. Furthermore, the sound of human voices undercuts the tension. Used judiciously, a bit of dialogue could help modulate the pacing, but both the amount and the words start to induce giggles.

If you can ignore what’s being said, 47 METERS DOWN is a strong example of a horror movie about humans stranded far out of their element.

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