‘47 Meters Down’ knows your darkest fears

Kaitlin McNabb
19 min readJun 21, 2019
Sharks, death, drowning, or loneliness? Gotta catch ’em all in 47 Meters Down.

From the shockingly unwatchable to ridiculously good, the Sharkometer series dissects every shark movie according to the GOAT Jaws.

47 Meters Down by Johannes Roberts, 2017
Starring Mandy Moore, Claire Holt, Chris J. Johnson, Yani Gellman, Santiago Segura, Matthew Modine
Budget: $5.3 million USD
Box office: $61.7 million USD
Number of times previously watched: 0

I’ve been thinking a lot about why I write, especially since it’s not *~getting me anywhere~* and therefore it probably seems weird that I keep doing it in a public arena. The short answer: I like to write. The long answer: I need to write. Writing fills me up inside (phrasing) and makes me feel good. It’s how I like to spend my time, even if it sometimes feels frustrating or like things are getting filed into the void (again, phrasing). But that’s okay! for me! at least! Right now!

I like creating weird niche pieces and doing exceedingly deep dives into weird concepts that may not be, what’s the word… publishable. It’s fun! And it’s fun to think (hope!) maybe there’s another weirdo out there being like “Mm, yes quite. I too thought about Susan Sontag’s Notes on Camp when watching Sharknado.” (Let’s be friends!)

Mostly, I like to figure out why I love or hate certain things and, as Anne Helen Petersen says, cultivating this stance of opinion refines not destroys pleasure of that thing because it provides opportunities to think more, not less. And you know what is absolutely rife with thinking-more opportunities: shark movies. At times, I felt I was forcing concepts on the movies and getting a little to “Ma’am, this is an Arby’s,” but you know what? It’s just where my brain goes and where the movies allow me to go because, and this is the big thing, horror movies reflect the world around us. To that end, the shark movie canon is stupid layered in meaning and 47 Meters Down is no exception. Sisters Kate and Lisa decide to go cage diving with great whites and some dodgy dudes after an understandable post-break-up breakdown by Lisa and a need to be not boring. The cable breaks and Kate and Lisa plummet 47 meters down *stares at camera* to the ocean floor and are trapped with little oxygen, circling sharks, and a serious fear of nitrogen narcosis. With that brief intro, I’m going to send up a few flares for this entry:

  1. There! Are! Spoilers! I mean, there are never not spoilers, but this one is a serious Spoiler McSpoilerson. So watch the movie first.
  2. This movie is (baby spoiler alert) surprisingly great! You should watch it. It’s also pretty terrifying for A LOT of reasons so don’t watch it alone in the dark like I, a fucking idiot, did or if you have Thalassophobia (Dave, I’m looking at you here).
  3. There! Are! Tangents! all in service of dissecting our love or hate. So I hope you enjoy! Or don’t! And then tell me (politely but sassily) why!

And in general, let’s all try to remember that, to again paraphrase AHP, we are not the sum total of our clicks or likes or whatever — we are more, weird unpublishable work and all.

Now, get in lovelies, we’re going shark-o-metering.

Divine Intervention strikes a devastating blow

Divine intervention loves a good neg. “You could have just told me to use the shark less, you bastard!,” Steven Spielberg yells at the sky. Ya, and I could have done without the meet cute of having terrible gas and watching The Deer Hunter the first night I met my dreamboat partner (I lit two things up that night!). But sometimes, bless her, divine intervention tries something else.

Okay, so fair warning: Yes we’re going to talk about Final Girls again (I’m obsessed!) and yes, I unabashedly love Mandy Moore. She’s wonderful! and oh so charming! She seems like that great friend who always compliments your cute top and invites you over for delicious afternoon snacks that she just threw together and makes you feel wonderful. Therefore, it’s truly not surprising that Claire Holt felt she “bonded straightaway” and “just really connected” with Moore and that this natural BFF connection is palpable on-screen. Moore as Lisa the “good girl” and Holt as Kate the “wild girl” seems pretty natural too.

Moore viewed the film as a departure for her genre-wise (absolutely) and an emotional and physical challenge (definitely) and though she has certainly proved herself a versatile actor (hello, Saved!) it’s definitely in her wheelhouse to be the lovable, plain good girl (remember her role in Grey’s Anatomy?!) dumped by her asshole boyfriend Stuart, and whose sister, the stupid hot Holt, is the wild “cool” girl who makes it her personal mission to prove Stuart wrong. Therefore — and previous spoiler alert flashing red here — it’s not surprising that Lisa is our Final Girl and Kate is our Dead Girl.

The authority on Final Girls, Carol J Clover, tells us a Final Girl is one who survives to the end. We’ve discussed the evolution of the Final Girl from merely alive, and usually the virginal good girl (1980s slasher films), to one with agency and a popped cherry (Sidney Prescott in Scream) to one who achieves emotional growth and her cherry isn’t even a plot point (Nancy in The Shallows; Nadia in Russian Doll). Lisa flows through all these models and takes pieces of them all, but ends up squarely back at the first — a girl who merely survives — in the most gutting way.

Conversely, the cultural authority on Dead Girls, Alice Bolin, describes Dead Girls a few different ways — “haunted, semi-sexual obsession” for one — and comes to two main points: the Dead Girl is usually a young woman and her death is usually violent and unnatural. Check and double check for Kate. Kate is a Dead Girl because she’s, well, dead, and her death-by-horrible-circumstance is juxtaposed to another girl’s survival. What does it mean that Lisa survives and Kate dies? And what does Lisa’s migration through Final Girls mean for her? Why do we even care?

Let’s back it up. Horror movies (not to mention regressive assholes) tell us Good Girls are Final Girls because they are pure and chaste and Bad Girls or Wild Girls are Dead Girls because they challenge or break societal expectations (re: they are sluts and bitches). That binary has blurred, somewhat, and Lisa and Kate go beyond being prototypical Good Girl or Bad Girl. Kate is “always doing fun stuff. Travelling around the world, doing crazy things, guys always chasing after [her],” but the focal point of her cool girl identity is never competition or jealousy. Kate is supportive and protective of Lisa and genuinely cares about her sister even with the whole misplaced convincing Lisa to go cage diving with a bunch of strange men so she could post pictures to spite her douchebag ex-boyfriend thing.

Lisa has a lot of Good Girl qualities — she’s unthreateningly cute, she self doubts, she’s a touch beige — and she is technically a Final Girl, but she’s more the I Never Wanted To Be Here In The First Place Girl as described by Emily Asher-Perrin. Lisa straight up did not want to go cage diving. She had reservations. She even went down to the bathroom on that rickety boat and said “I don’t want to do this” to which Kate replied “You know you’re not gonna make Stuart jealous with photos inside the boat’s bathroom.” Yeah, that’s fucking harsh and a bit manipulative, Kate. Also Stuart seems like a mega-asshole.

“I hate this trope more than anything, perhaps because of its ubiquity. Or perhaps because it asks the most basic question of all, one that our society struggles to answer even to this day: Why didn’t you believe her?” states Asher-Perrin. It’s a good fucking question. Over and over Lisa says a variation of “this doesn’t feel safe” to events that are really fucking unsafe, and Kate brushes it off.
Captain Taylor looks sketchy as hell: nope he’s totally fine.
The shark cage is old as fuck: nope, totally safe.
The winch mechanism just fucking jolted: nope, let’s stay in.
Why didn’t Kate listen to Lisa and give her what she actually needed? Lisa didn’t even have scuba training and that cage was seriously rusty!

Asher-Perrin says that Lisa’s story and ending is a common point of entry into a horror movie. “If she survives, it’s a different kind of trauma that she carries with her. She will hoist it onto her back like an overstuffed schoolbag and tote it wherever she goes, a testament to the fact that all the intuition in the world couldn’t keep her safe.” Um, YUP. Lisa didn’t need to be more careful or brave or fun or heroic. Lisa needed to be told she is enough and that her ex-boyfriend is a douchebag she doesn’t need to prove herself to. But instead, she thinks she is responsible for Kate’s death. Kate needed to be told she’s not responsible for Stuart’s actions or a catalyst for Lisa’s. But instead she’s dead.

It’s a depressing “Be Yourself” message at best and a devastating “Don’t be a Hero” statement at worst that lands like a ton of fucking bricks when we find out Kate is actually dead. It’s a testament to Moore and Holt’s chemistry that 47 Meters Down can land such a gut-wrenching end punch. Divine Intervention brought two lively women together so we would watch death rip them apart.

Divine Intervention rating: 1/1 waterfalls

Hitchcockian flare: There is a light that most definitely goes out

I was recently in Chicago for a “working vacation” so naturally I ended up flipping between The Food Network and When Sharks Attack — a shark show that balances presenting factual non-hyperbolic information with overly sensationalized re-dramatizations. You know, the sweet spot for most sharksploitation. I watched riveted as shark experts (sharksperts) discussed displacement behaviour theory, rogue sharks, and food availability (spoiler alert: destructive human actions are bad for sharks), but would quickly flip away when a re-dramatization happened or, if lying to myself, would do that thing where you pretend like you’re watching, but really you’re looking at the bottom corner of the screen so you can’t actually see it. I was too scared okay! I’ve always been scared. I knew sharks couldn’t actually come out of the pool drain, but I believed my dad every time he yelled “Sharks in the pool!” and pulled us underwater (THANKS FOR THE DEEP PSYCHOLOGICAL SCARS, DAD). I knew sharks weren’t in the freshwater lake, but maybe someone dropped a myriad of sharks in there? (hello, Shark Night 3D) But damn those re-dramatizations on TV are scary! And yet, I watched. Why? Because I, like most of us, am fascinated and obsessed by my own fears.

We fear sharks because we fear death. We fear dark open water because we fear the unknown, what’s lurking in the depths. A lot of shark movies prey on this factor — Jaws confronted the audience with it immediately when Chrissie swims out way too far into the ocean, in the dark, all by herself, and is violently attacked. That one grizzly moment set off a cultural firestorm of obsession and triggered millions of sharks phobias (trivia fact: it’s called Selachophobia).

47 Meters Down layers on the fear of drowning (Aquaphobia. Don’t google this. The image is haunting) because, as the director bitchily summed up, this is a “diver” movie. This horror sandwich with fear as the bread and isolation of Lisa and Kate as the meat and sharks as the pickles or spicy peppers do something more when we bite in: it exposes our fear of loneliness.

At certain points, I thought the sharks came to represent a Babadook of loneliness consuming them (probably says something about me) and that light symbolized life and safety (that’s a pretty popular theory). Flashlights signal fresh air tanks and finding Kate; flares and beacons are safety from sharks. Stripping the setting to a cage at the bottom of the ocean and isolating our two gals forces us to confront and embody our fear of dying and dying alone. In Jaws, we know Brody will survive and we’re rooting for him to overcome his fear even though he’s alone and it’s a bonus when Hooper comes back. In 47 Meters Down it’s totally unclear who will survive and we’re rooting for them to please dear god just make it back to the surface together.

Of all the “this is not a shark movieshark movie contenders, 47 Meters Down is definitely the most non-shark movie. In fellow “It’s not a shark movie!” The Shallows, I was PUMPED when Nancy yelled “Fuck you” and started pummelling the shark with flares in desperation and initiated the thrilling end sequence. In 47 Meters Down, Lisa’s desperation is just as heightened, but my emotional response was different: I was so worried and panicked — I just wanted these women to get out and for the sharks to leave them alone dammit! and it’s because it’s not really about the sharks.

Maybe that’s not a universal view (what is), but the fact that the movie doesn’t position itself as LISA VS. SHARK and instead Lisa and Kate VS. losing each other says a lot about our deeper response to how fear shapes the personal and the cultural. I just wanted them to make it together and be safe together. And then just when you think they so…they don’t, and the lights go out and the loneliness creeps in. Devastating.

Hitchcockian Flare rating: 8/10 gold medals

Filmin’: it’s underwater!

This movie is filmed almost entirely underwater! Seriously! 90% or 95%! The inventiveness of the director and commitment of the actors (“Eight weeks, eight hours a day [underwater]!”) really plays out here for a more realist effect and I get the same thrill in my stomach as I get when something is animatronic. The warm and “HOLY SHIT IT’S IN THE WATER” fuzzies. Knowing things like Holt actually took off her actual mask and oxygen tank to swim out of the cage 20 meters down is bonkers! Especially if you’re Moore sitting in the cage waiting to pass her the mask and watch her breathe again.

The natural underwater movement all brings a great cadence to the movie and heightens the terror and danger of the swirling shark POV scenes. The whole thing totally reminded me of Creature From The Black Lagoon. Honestly, I was going to do a whole thing on this and try to weave in the Ben Gardner milky pool shot in Jaws, but I’m going to shield you from that one and just insist you watch Creature From The Black Lagoon (it’s about happiness and loneliness and emotional connection too! also the clothes are *chef’s kiss*). And just for kicks, watch Jaws again.

Filmin’ rating: 3/4 video cameras

Mothercutter…will there ever be a second coming of editing?

Editing has been a tricky category in general given that Jaws had a prolific editor who was much celebrated by Spielberg and the industry and that editors are generally ignored and brushed aside. (Yes I’m salty.)

Being that this was shot underwater and that CGI was at play, I’m going to assume that post-production was huge in this film and I would like to tip my hat. That said, the lead up to the shark cage still felt too long and could have used a trim (we get it, Lisa really doesn’t want to cage dive).

Mother Cutter rating: 1/2 scissors

Good humour: error not found

This movie is *lowers voice* very serious. It’s about relationships and self identity and crushing isolation. Oh and potentially running out of air and/or sharks killing you. There’s not a lot of humourous moments minus a few gentle stabs like “Does my butt at least look cute in this?” and some meek gags like the opening blood-drenched Jaws-esque shark POV to reveal “kidding! it’s wine in a pool!” (Lisa’s bathing suit is stuff dreams are made of.)

That’s fine. It’s fine. Maybe there isn’t always room for humour in every movie but, I think, humour threads throughout life, no matter the circumstance, so movies that fail to employ even the slightest un-serious moment risk coming off flat and imbalanced. Oh wut, am I the only one who deals with serious things with inappropriate jokes and uses humour as a defense mechanism?

Unrelated: I’m concerned about how many candles are still lit while they are sleeping at the hotel. Seems…not that smart.

Good humour rating: 0/3 popsicles

No CGIs Allowed…except maybe only this one time

It’s a bold move to film pretty much entirely underwater for the realism and then scan in the sharks. I’m definitely not advocating bringing in real sharks, much to Renny Harlin’s chagrin, and the crew had good reason not to use animatronics, but, you know, they’re CGI sharks and you can tell and that affects our visceral reaction to things.

Except.

Lord, I can’t believe I’m admitting this, much less writing it down, but here we are.

There is one absolutely s.t.u.n.n.i.n.g. scene that (probably) could not have been achieved using mechanical sharks (or real for that matter). When Lisa and a badly injured Kate are attempting to resurface despite all the risks, their flare, with its light ostensibly keeping the sharks at bay, abruptly fizzles out in Kate’s hand. “We need to light another one, hurry!” says Lisa. Kate fumbles around her suit and drops one of two flares left as the darkness hangs around them. Lisa then grabs the last flare out of Kate’s pocket and frantically strikes it to light their surroundings and THREE MOTHER FUCKING SHARKS LUNGING AT THEM ARE ILLUMINATED IN RED FIERY GLOW, THEIR TEETH INCHES FROM KATE AND LISA. IT IS EPIC. The girls rightfully freak out as sharks strike around them, dodging their flare. And then the last flare goes out… It is AWESOME. The moment is seriously mind-blowing and has stuck with me ever since I watched it and no photo still or poorly executed screen grab can do it justice, so you should watch the movie for this moment alone. This is me, Kaitlin “I hate CGI” McNabb saying you should watch this movie for the CGI.

It’s honestly probably the only time I will fully endorse the use of CGI in a shark movie, oh except all the scenes in The Meg because those were really well done *eye rolls into oblivion*

No CGIs allowed rating: 2/3 mechanical shark fins (all for that scene.)

Wildcard: A classic reverse Hooper

We’ve reached the end and KATE. IS. ACTUALLY. DEAD. That reveal! If Jaws had its Hooper rising from the dead moment, then this is the reverse Hooper. If the Deep Blue Sea Samuel L. Jackson death scene was a C4-TNT-laced mega boom, then this was a dollar store roman candle you bought just for the hell of it that shot straight out the package, promptly nosedived and fizzled out and then exploded in your face and burned off all your eyebrows.

I’m going to take a knee and be fearless here and admit: I did not see this coming. I hear the “r u serious. It was so obvious!” and I’m here to say that having the power of retrospect doesn’t make you prescient and also you. are. lying. You didn’t see this coming! Because here’s the thing, even if you knew Kate was dead, you wanted her to be alive. Again, it’s a testament to Moore and Holt’s chemistry and to the film’s paralyzing setting that you believed every moment that happened after the radio crackled to life with Kate’s voice “Lisa, Lisa, are you there? I managed to escape.”

Some critics said the movie didn’t go far enough and that Lisa should have straight up died too or others said that the death twist was “completely unnecessary” and “changed the tone and emotional context of the film.” But I disagree on both accounts…sort of.

When asked if he was ever tempted by this idea of Lisa also dying, Roberts said “Yes, I did a version of [both Lisa and Kate dying] … and that was so bleak! I kind of liked it but it was so bleak that we actually [had to] give it some upbeat.” I’m not sure how the director defines “upbeat” but Kate dying and Lisa surviving ain’t it for me. It seems more bleak, bleaker even, that Lisa survives and Kate dies because then Lisa is truly alone and, oh yeah, her sister died right in front of her while trying to save her. It’s messy and emotionally complex (and horrible!). Both of them dying would have been cleaner. Like, what happens when you go cage diving with theoretical scuba skills and a suspect dive team: you die. It’s terrible, sure, two women dying at the bottom of a shark-invested patch of ocean, but it’s not surprising. It’s a cautionary tale that (a) we shouldn’t look toward external events in order to create change within ourselves or to try to prove ourselves to others and (b) don’t go fucking scuba diving if you don’t know how or the people aren’t reputable.

The victim-blaming narrative aside, the reveal adds a whole new emotional layer to an already pretty heavy film and subverts the expectations set by the intense last battle that you totally think is going to claim Lisa. When Lisa hears Kate’s voice fizzle “Sharks, are circling me. I’m hurt,” Lisa gets a classic hero overcoming enormous obstacles moment (in a pretty long list of them up to that point). Pinned underneath the cage after its second drop and freshly primed with new oxygen, she rigs her BCD to lift the cage — an ingenious maneuver that has since been debunked — and braves the open, apparently shark-swarmed, water and finds her badly wounded sister. Lisa decides enough is enough and breaks for the surface with her sister — nitrogen narcosis be damned! — Kate’s open wound essentially chumming the water around them. They fight off sharks with flares and shoot through the surface.

Lisa holds a lifeless, bleeding Kate and pulls her toward a life ring as a beastly shark rips in from the side and pulls Lisa under, gnashing down on her leg and violently jerking her around. Lisa manages to fight it off and is pulled to the boat and then another shark shoots out of the water and grabs Lisa, clinging to the side of the boat, and pulls her under again. Her torso is locked in its jaws and she frantically scratches and finally claws its eyes and it releases her and finally both Kate and Lisa collapse on-board together and then… it all literally b l u r s a w a y and we fade back to reveal Lisa, still pinned under the cage, mumbling “We made it. We made is Kate” as Taylor’s voice crackles through the radio “You’re hallucinating Lisa” and the coast guard circles in.

ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED! It is a totally fucking harrowing journey and absolutely exhilarating to watch — one of the better trying to out-swim the sharks moments — and that plot twist completely knifes you right in the heart and gut.

The emotional context of “Lisa is alive and her sister Kate is dead” is just so…devastating. All Lisa’s bravery and efforts to save both of them are worthless. Trying to embody Kate’s ethos doesn’t save them nor does trying to prove Stuart wrong. We must unpack their journey and what it means that Lisa, who viewed her sister as competition, survives and watches her sister Kate die while she was literally trying to give Lisa life in the form of a new oxygen tank. Now that shit is really bleak, director!

I have a theory: What if none of the movie happened and instead it was just Lisa and Kate plummet to the bottom once, Kate dies, and Lisa sits there alone, slowly running out of air until the coast guard comes and she hallucinated the entire thing. Yes a Jacob’s Ladder, but hear me out.

We assume the point Kate dies is when she is railroaded by a shark while trying to pass oxygen to Lisa, after the second time they fell. But maybe it was earlier than that. Maybe it was when Kate went to get contact after they think the boat has driven away and the shark comes out of nowhere and she allegedly narrowly avoids it. It seems super impossible that she could dodge a shark coming full throttle at her in dark water. They’re pretty precision hunters — it’s kind of what they’re known for. But why did Kate have to swim away from the cage to get contact at all? In the end reveal, Taylor’s voice is heard on the radio while Lisa is in the cage. Maybe Kate was dead all along.

Think about it! A lot of things seem pretty fucking implausible even before Kate supposedly dies, like Lisa dodging multiple kamikaze-esque shark attacks, Javier’s stupid winch plan, and the rope breaking again not to mention Kate wakes Lisa up initially. Maybe Kate was hurdled out of the cage or died on impact or or or… Or maybe it’s all a hallucination and the coast guard isn’t even there (a classic Jacob’s Ladder if you will). We only saw what Lisa wished we saw — her overcoming her fears, rescuing her sister, and fighting for life — instead of what actually happened — her, alone and helpless, pinned to the bottom of the ocean. Now that shit is really, really bleak.

Wildcard rating: 1/1 Spielberg head

Final Thoughts: Watch it!

A surprise strong entry in the sharkometer! You should watch. It’s not as gritty and beautifully filmed as The Shallows and it’s not as over-the-top and bonkers like Deep Blue Sea, but it’s got a lot of great stuff that will stick with you and you will feel a lot of things and you definitely, definitely will never want to go cage diving ever.

Also! 47 Meters Down: Uncaged looks legit good!

Next up: Real sharksploitation in ‘The Reef’

For a complete list of Sharkometer movies, swim here.

Footnotes and Recommend Readings

As always, credit is hyperlinked throughout and additional readings below that helped shape this piece.

The Lady from the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick by Mallory O’Meara
Horror Is Not Defined by What Scares You by Angelica Jade Bastién
Dead Girls by Alice Bolin
Your Art Will Save Your Life by Beth Pickens
How To Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell
Meaty by Samantha Irby
The Peril of Being Disbelieved: Horror Fiction and the Intuition of Women by Emily Asher-Perrin
oh no all my earnestness in one place by Anne Helen Petersen
I Know You Know That Happiness Is Fleeting by Edith Zimmerman
In Memory of the Englishman Who Kept a Shark on His Roof by Lou Stoppard
Against Hustle: Jenny Odell Is Taking Her Time at the End of the World by Rebecca McCarthy

As always, if there’s typos, I don’t care. Or you can tell me nicely. It’s very hard to write and edit your own work and I tried.

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