I went through just about all of 47 Meters Down, a shark thriller, ready to recommend it; it didn’t tell the most original of stories, and it relied on just about every debunked shark myth there is, but in much the same way as a fairy tale, I was made to believe its scenario served as a metaphor for compelling themes of judgment, maturation, strength, and bravery. But then I was blindsided by a twist ending, one that not only negated much of what I had witnessed but also squelched any notions I had about the story being metaphorical.
The movie, as it turns out, is exactly what it appears to be: A scary movie with a contrived setup and very little payoff. I felt cheated, disappointed, and confused over why the filmmakers believed the ending was appropriate.
It tells the story of two sisters, Kate (Claire Holt) and Lisa (Mandy Moore), who, while vacationing at a Mexican seaside resort, become stranded underwater in a shark cage. Their survival depends not only on evading the sharks that occasionally swim by and snap their jaws, but also on replenishing their dwindling supplies of oxygen, getting back in touch with the boat on the surface, and managing injuries that repeatedly spill blood into the water. You might think it would be a simple matter of the girls swimming for the surface as fast as they can, but it isn’t; if they were to do that, it would be the bends, not the sharks, that would kill them.
I enjoyed the movie much more before realizing it wasn’t really about anything – which is to say, when I thought it was about something. It’s established that Lisa has just broken up with her boyfriend, who found her boring, and that, despite her unwavering love and support, has always felt inferior around Kate, always the more outgoing and attractive of the two; I was under the impression that their subsequent ordeal would be a quasi-hero’s journey for Lisa, the sharks, elements, and injuries symbolizing her struggle to grow emotionally.
Agreeing to go into the shark cage in the first place, based more on her need to prove her ex-boyfriend wrong, initially seemed like a moral: Never take part in an unlicensed activity that utilizes substandard equipment, most notably a rusted-up winch, and involves illegal chumming of the water.
In a situation like that, in which it’s known that an outlandish premise is in service of a message or theme, normally tiresome conventions can be overlooked, perhaps even embraced. I wouldn’t have minded about the many, many scenes of the sisters hyperventilating and screaming each other’s names. I wouldn’t have cared about all the moments of the sisters outside the cage, in which sharks act like actors in a haunted maze and repeatedly pop out of the darkness. It wouldn’t have bothered me that it’s just one thing after another for the sisters, the threat of the sharks made worse by the threat of dwindling oxygen supplies and the injuries they sustain.
Unfortunately, because of the twist ending, not only is the film revealed to be about nothing, the conventions cease to be necessary narrative devices. They instantly become problematic and unimaginative. If the filmmakers just wanted to scare audiences without forcing them to use their heads, why not try for something a little less pedestrian? Why go for the obvious? God knows enough shark movies have been made, even after learning that real-life sharks aren’t malicious killing machines with vendettas against humanity. Yes, shark attacks do happen, but never like they do in the movies, and never for the reasons movies give us.
How I wanted to like this movie. Initially, I did. It wasn’t only because of the tension or the scares, although that certainly was part of the equation; it was because I thought it was about more than two young women in an underwater fight for survival. Alas, the ending was like a pin that punctured and deflated all that I enjoyed about it. If you don’t require shark movies to work a little harder, to dig a little deeper, to actually earn the right to indulge in contrivances, 47 Meters Down is definitely the movie for you. But me, I wanted something more. Had I been smart and left the theater before the film ended, I would have gotten it.