Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
June 2017

47 Meters Down

Shark weak

On possessory credits, underwater light, contented mediocrity, and the tautological integrity of a simple shark movie

47 Meters Down
Entertainment Studios
Director: Johannes Roberts
Screenplay: Johannes Roberts and Ernest Riera
Starring: Mandy Moore, Claire Holt, Matthew Modine, Santiago Segura and Yani Gellman
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 29 minutes / 2.35:1
June 16, 2017
(out of four)

47 Meters Down is a tautology incarnate: It is what it is. There is little to be said about it that isn't already captured by that immaculately useless phrase, but I'll try my best. This is a shark movie. There have been fewer shark movies over the years than one might expect, but, well, this is one of them. Two women go cage diving in the Pacific, there is an accident, they get stranded in the deep. There are sharks down there. As Tony Shalhoub from Barton Fink might say: Mandy Moore. Shark picture. Whaddya need, a roadmap?

Now let's demonstrate this principle as a philosophical question: Why is 47 Meters Down? Because shark.

Of course, this is potentially misleading, as any good shark movie features very few actual sharks. Which itself leads to an even deeper philosophical question: How much shark is, truly, shark?

How much indeed.

The quest for such answers notwithstanding, this is a movie whose very minor ambitions practically immunizes it from much outright contempt. How can one hate a movie like this? Its filmmaking is just OK, but just OK is still, by definition, OK. Its stupidity is, in most instances, not the kind of stupidity worth getting too upset about. This is a harmless little thing that is not particularly good but not an embarrassment, either. It will be a passable late-night HBO watch for the next ten years. There are much worse movies available on HBO at this very moment. Bicentennial Man, for example. Also Mamma Mia! Also Highlander. See? This shark movie is looking better by the minute.

The most curious detail about the film is its opening title card, which includes a rare possessory credit, so its on-screen title is officially Johannes Roberts' 47 Meters Down. I have no idea what possessed Mr. Roberts to request such a credit, nor the studio to grant it, but there we are. This is his shark movie, dammit. These are his meters. All forty-seven of them.

But before we get to descend to those depths and meet the shark(s), we're comfortably ashore on a paradisal Mexican beach. Sisters Lisa (Mandy Moore) and Kate (Claire Holt) are vacationing together; Lisa's boyfriend was supposed to come along as well, but he broke up with her at the last minute, leaving her despondent and self-conscious on what is supposed to be a carefree week at the beach. Her sister is the adventurous one; Lisa is more of a homebody, and blames her boyfriend bailing on that very characteristic. She's too boring, she says. Nonsense, argues Kate. Let's go play with some sharks.

OK, that's not quite how she phrases it. But after the two hook up with a pair of dashing local twentysomethings - the same potentially sketchy dudes who always seem to show up at the nightclub in every movie set in a quasi-exotic coastal vacation spot - Kate insists that the four of them go cage diving the next day. Never mind that, of the two, only she is scuba certified. It'll be fine. Fearing that refusal to go along will only reinforce her image of herself as a boring, overly cautious stick-in-the-mud, Lisa hesitantly accepts, and the next thing you know the two are climbing down into an extremely rickety cage on an uncertified boat owned by an uncertified captain played by Matthew Modine. The anxious fun of being protectively surrounded by sharks quickly turns to disaster; the cables snap, and Lisa, Kate and their dwindling oxygen supplies plunge to the ocean floor. If I'm eyeballing it, I'd say they're about 45 or 50 meters down or so, but don't hold me to that.

The bulk of Fellini's 47 Meters Down takes place underwater, a challenge the filmmakers embrace with their purposeful experimentations with underwater light. With the deep-sea darkness dominating the frame - everything surrounding these two characters amounting to little more than a murky blue shadow - the glows of light that peek through have an evocative presence. They attack, they haunt, they promise, they fade. The violent spark of a red flare illuminates the film's best image, a center-framed reveal shot that validates the characters' state of mind and reaffirms their physical vulnerability. It's also a wider composition than almost anything else in the movie, which is mostly shot much tighter.

By sticking with Lisa and Kate in the cage and its surrounding waters - rather than pingponging between their situation and any presumptive search-and-rescue or missing-persons subplots at the surface - Tyler Perry's 47 Meters Down does a reasonably good job making us wonder what the actual stakes are, whether that boat is even still around, whether there's some more sinister reason they've been abandoned at the bottom of the sea. We go a long stretch before finally hearing a voice emerge over the radio, and even then we get no visual confirmation that anyone is actually coming for them, or that anything has been reported, or that any rescue team or authorities have been dispatched. Beyond that, though death-by-shark is the most obvious and visible threat, the characters are contending with three equally dangerous possibilities, which gives them a whole host of bad options to choose from as they try to save themselves. Stay in the cage and the sharks won't get you. Stay in the cage and drown once your oxygen runs out. Leave the cage, try to reach the surface ... except if you ascend too quickly you'll get the bends, or perhaps a blood clot in your brain, and that's only if a shark doesn't get you first. Whether to take action or wait for rescue is their most pressing question, and one with no sure answer.

There's enough going on here that Marvel's 47 Meters Down passes the watchability test even as it repeatedly slides into cheap situational drama. Roberts' craft is decent enough, but he lacks the verve or ingenuity to transform a simple scenario like this one into the pressing psychological nightmare it is, and should be, for these two characters. If the film had such an effect, it might not have had to rely on a foreshadowed but still achingly dumb late plot development - which is, incidentally, nearly identical to one from a Catherine Keener movie I saw at Sundance some years ago (which ultimately went straight to DVD), whose climactic 15-minute sequence was a needless, manipulative, overcalculated frustration. The direction this film goes isn't quite as damaging - but perhaps only because, once again, its standards were already so moderate.

Running a brisk 89 minutes, Lee Daniels' 47 Meters Down is at least wise enough to not wear out its welcome. And - I cannot emphasize this enough - it does have sharks in it. This is a point in any movie's favor. That the filmmakers are either smart enough not to oversell this fact or weren't provided the budget to do so is another. The bottom line is that everyone involved seems to have agreed on the innocuous mediocrity of their intentions, as if the whole pitch for the movie was, "Let's make a cheap movie with pretty people and sharks that will be watchable and instantly forgettable." There's honor in that, I suppose.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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