Credit where it’s due: The 47 Meters Down franchise preaches with regularity and fair consistency that humans land in the mouths of sharks due to their own foolishness, rather than the mindless bloodlust of the creatures. A break in anthropocentrism (even a minor one) is a radical notion in any monster movie, but one of importance in these particular monster movies. Because shark movies, starting with the mommy shark of them all, Jaws, have had demonstrably devastating effects on shark populations, an ethical approach to shark pictures has been long overdue. Both 2017's 47 Meters Down and, to a lesser but no less appreciated extent, the new 47 Meters Down Uncaged suggest it’s possible to exploit the innate terror sharks strike in the hearts of humans with something that more or less resembles respect for the animals.
Minor spoilers below.
But just because these movies’ hearts are in the right place doesn’t mean their brains are—or that they have brains at all. This is the kind of a movie where a screaming fish is a crucial plot device. The great whites here are encountered in an underwater cave that’s also a sunken Mayan city in a Mexico that is populated by what seems to be zero Spanish speakers and not very many Mexican people. (The presence of relative newcomers Corinne Foxx and Sistine Stallone, the daughters of Jamie Foxx and Sylvester Stallone, suggests that nepotism is a force of nature as potentially powerful as a one-ton apex predator.) These cave-dwelling sharks here are blind, because as one character surmises, they “must have evolved down here.” That’s not… how evolution works. But don’t tell that to the dumb kids who populate this movie. One later informs another with authority: “The sharks, they’ve evolved blind so they have a heightened sense of hearing.” If you say something enough times, it must be true.
This latest entry in the series, again directed and co-written by British filmmaker Johannes Roberts, doesn’t continue the narrative of the first or revive any of its characters, instead revisiting themes and images like rapidly dropping air-tank gauges and scurrying up the stairs of a boat only to be intercepted by an eagle-eyed (in this case, again let me stress, blind) shark. It also doubles down overt references to Neil Marshall’s low-key 2005 classic The Descent. The final moments of the first 47 Meters referenced the bleak original (British) ending of The Descent, in which the climactic escape from the cave of monsters was a mere hallucination and the surviving characters in fact were doomed. In this 47 Meters, the debt is even more overt as a group of young women maneuver through the perils of a cave (this one underwater) amongst monsters. The sharks mostly act like sharks until they don’t, chasing their potential prey into tight cracks and lunging from the darkness to grab them by the scuba gear. On the fun side, the sharks chomp men and traitors first, and it’s really nice to see misandrist and moralist stances played out in such a venue as the shark-film subgenre.
The Descent is not the only source of inspiration here. There’s a scene that compresses the entirety of Open Water (swimmers at the surface, sharks circling below) into less than five minutes. I appreciated its efficiency. We witness what seems to be overt homage to the Jaws franchise: banging on metal to draw the shark’s attention (as in Jaws 2), a tight swim through human-made environment (like the chase through the sunken ship in Jaws: The Revenge). A decapitated head floats out, stunning a swimmer, just like in the first Jaws.
It stunned me too. I gasped way louder than I should have when the sad, water-logged, dead head bobbed into frame. As goofy as this movie is, as impossible as it is to identify with or even simply identify any of the characters (they all wear diving masks, none performed or written with particular distinction, and the camera is practically pressed against them much of the time they’re on screen), I found 47 Meters Down Uncaged to be effective despite myself and itself. Once the gals get in the water and the sharks come out, the movie hits a sprint that rarely lets up. Virtually the entire movie is too claustrophobic for comfort, and its final act rolls out one obstacle after another, a sort of Murphy’s Law approach to sunken Mayan city tours interrupted by sharks. It’s just like life: you wriggle free of your scuba gear so that you can pass through rock crack to make it to the surface, and then you have to swim through a boatload of chum. You can never win! This movie, goofy as it is, manages a multivalence that complements its shark subjects more soundly than it has any business doing. Great whites are both fascinating and terrifying, creatures most responsible people wouldn’t want around them but certainly want to stick around. 47 Meters Down Uncaged is both laughable and thrilling, a movie that often doesn’t make much sense but at least knows well enough to make like a shark and keep moving.