Time is relative right now. The jury’s still out on any semblance of a summer movie season. Thus, the Midwest Film Journal is celebrating — at least in the astronomical sense — Endless Summer. In this intermittent series, which will run through the autumnal equinox on Sept. 22, we’ll look back at summer films from seasons past. Big, small, light, heavy, wild successes and weird misfires. Our multiplex is full and open for Endless Summer.
There’s nothing more terrifying to me than what could be lurking beneath the ocean. It triggers the same deeply felt anxieties and existential dread as trying to imagine the sheer limitlessness of space. Somehow, despite its size, it inspires feelings of claustrophobia and isolation similar to being trapped in a tight space where you’re rapidly running out of air. Anything could be down there, and a lot of movies have done their takes on what awaits.
Jaws, Deep Blue Sea, The Reef, Piranha, Underwater. All great and just different enough to not feel overdone. (The Meg could have been more interesting, but it was too full of constipated machoisms without the shameless fun we know Jason Statham is capable of after the Fast & Furious franchise and Spy; also, Underwater did the whole “we drilled too deep” thing better.) Even if it’s just a giant shark, the right movie can make that beyond frightening, and the right lead can make you want to look beyond its surface. Also: Nothing spells summer to me like a great shark movie. Since one of my favorite subgenres these days is underrated movies about women fighting giant underwater monsters, this is my tribute to those girls and the sharks who love them.
47 Meters Down may be a movie centered around a couple of sharks terrorizing two girls in a cage underwater, but it’s really about sisters. Lisa (Mandy Moore) was just dumped by her boyfriend and decides to take her younger sister, Kate (Claire Holt), with her on her Mexico vacation — determined to show her ex that she could still be “fun.” A painfully relatable starting premise for anyone who’s been through a breakup where a relationship just went stale. Kate pulls Lisa out of her post-breakup rut to go dancing, where they meet a couple cute guys who convince them to come on a sketchy shark-diving trip where they throw chum into the water while encouraging you to go inside a questionably built cage five meters below the surface that is literally surrounded by sharks.
What’s the worst that could happen?
Watching them descend into the water, I felt as visibly nervous as Lisa; the exhilaration once they’re five meters submerged followed by the immediate unease when the sharks get closer to the cage is palpable. Predictably, the chain holding them breaks and we watch them plummet all the way to the ocean floor, all 47 meters down and my stomach dropping with the cage.
It’s the most effective recreation of the roller-coaster effect, where you’ve just tipped over the other side of a steep drop while still comfortably lounging on your couch with a bowl of popcorn. For the next hour and change, we watch these two sisters battle with some of their biggest underwater-triggered fears, badly injured and fighting to survive while trying to avoid the dreaded bends and nitrogen-narcosis hallucinations, racing against the clock with their dwindling oxygen tanks and, yes, also swimming from the giant sharks trying to eat them. It’s a lot of fast-paced, non-stop thrilling action that had me sweating in my seat. But in the end, it’s the more personal, emotional hits that really drive it home and might have you rooting for them the whole way through. (Because honestly, sometimes I’m rooting for the shark. Hi, Bruce!)
The bulk of the film functions as a pretty terrible game of “Would You Rather,” with such undesirable choices as staying in the safety of the cage and eventually dying of asphyxiation when the oxygen tanks run out … or leaving the cage and risk getting eaten by sharks because you must swim up closer to the surface to reach anyone over the radio. The use of darkness in the film is really its most successfully terrifying feature, though, even more so than the actual monsters swimming beneath the ocean’s surface. Watching Kate swim around blindly in the dark while she’s trying to make contact with the boat is panic-inducing enough, but the moment Lisa swims off the edge of a cliff into total blackness, losing her sense of direction and calling out to her sister for help is something out of my deepest, most unrealized nightmares. 47 Meters Down successfully plays on the absolutely terror-inducing infinity of the ocean.
Moore and Holt’s sisterly dynamic really works for me with little else to go on and immediately shifts the focus from the shark-level threat to something personal, and I always see too much of myself in Moore’s character as she struggles. I’m that cautious older sister who overthinks everything, always freezing instead of plunging head-first to take a risk. It’s hard to imagine fighting through that terror enough to survive, and Moore brings those feelings painfully close to the surface. Kate may be the carefree younger sister who throws caution to the wind. But you realize very quickly that while they seem like opposing forces, they anchor each other. Lisa may be the older sister, but Kate is clearly her rock who she looks to for strength, and Lisa reminds Kate that there’s more to life than the next big thrill. Their connection feels organic, laying out the bonds of sisterhood within the first 40 minutes, just in time for you to get real sad.
By the halfway point, Kate is almost out of air. So Lisa finds the courage to step up and leave the cage in another attempt to get them help. At the beginning, Kate is the calming voice of reason while her sister has one panic attack after another, leaning heavily on her younger sister while she makes several risky attempts to get them help. And when you realize the moment Kate actually dies, it’s kind of devastating. By the end, Lisa finds the strength to stand on her own in the fight of her life when she says “I’m not going to die down here” to no one but herself, and the end result is satisfying not because of the script (which is arguably weak) but because of Moore’s engaging performance in the limited space of the film.
Moore is such an underrated actress, and frankly I think she could have a much bigger career (although her work on NBC’s This is Us is incredible). The correlation between some critics’ opinions that women can’t carry films like these and the mountain of similarly frustrating stories like the psychological abuse by former husband Ryan Adams that completely derailed her music career aren’t lost on me when I watch this because Moore doesn’t just carry this film, she owns it. If Male Hollywood didn’t feel so threatened by female success in the industry and deliberately seek to stamp it out wherever possible, we would have so many more successful female-led films in the action-horror genre and stars like Moore who not only deserve to flourish but do so.
You can focus on script weaknesses if you want, but even the bare bones of Johannes Roberts’ film represent a seamlessly produced aquatic panic attack that, once it starts, doesn’t cease until the end. 47 Meters Down is a film that never changes location once it hits its stride and somehow doesn’t get boring, which is hard to do; a shout-out to 2019’s Crawl, which also did that very well. It’s also a movie that exists almost entirely underwater, and it’s really hard to make underwater action look good (something that Underwater did not do well). Not so here, where, even at its darkest and when everything is moving too slow, the camerawork switching back and forth from first-person for every new jump makes you forget that while you’re too busy having a genuinely well-earned anxiety spiral. Also, that flare scene? You have to see it to believe how bone-chilling it is.
Underwater horror like this is my forever jam, as it captures the paralyzing isolation of being stuck at the bottom of a dark, vast ocean with the person you need most to survive. 47 Meters Down sets up several obstacles for the sisters that stimulate genuine and more realistic fears in an audience that goes in thinking the killer shark is the villain although humans are the ones who come into their house uninvited. The ending is a little too smart for a movie that hand-waves a lot for the sake of going full steam ahead, but if you can get past the fact that they didn’t immediately call the Coast Guard as soon as this all happened instead of 20 minutes from the end of the film, it’s easy to get caught up in the action for a fun subaquatic. nightmare. Also, maybe these sharks just weren’t hungry enough, but Jaws pretty definitively illustrates that a small metal cage isn’t enough to keep them out if they really want to eat you. That being said, I think this is one of the most underrated shark movies out there.
It’s true that I need a little human connection in my movies about scary water monsters. But when it comes down to it, they don’t necessarily need to be set that deep in the heart of the ocean to really get me scared. Sometimes the scariest ones lurk in the shallows.
Speaking of another female-fronted shark thriller that could’ve flopped hard, The Shallows truly is one of the best shark thrillers to date. It’s also basically 90 minutes of me realizing that I’m never leaving on a surfing trip without a Blake Lively to save me. Nancy (Lively) has experienced a genuine loss of faith. Dropping out of medical school after her mother recently died of cancer, she’s returning to the beach that her mother visited when she was pregnant and undertaking a lone surfing expedition as an act of mourning. The first 20 minutes of Jaume Collet-Serra’s film sets this up beautifully. Lively’s magnetic charms and quiet sadness draw you in as she looks through pictures of her mother at the beach, reverently preparing herself and her gear for a day of surfing like a ritual. The camerawork above and below her as she descends into the water and catches her first wave is breathtaking. Her driver called it paradise, and he wasn’t exaggerating. A place this beautiful couldn’t possibly have anything that terrible lurking beneath its surface, right?
We get just enough of Nancy to understand her inner struggle through a phone call with her father that ends in an argument. He doesn’t understand why she’s dropped out of med school after all her hard work to help people, and Nancy doesn’t see the point in trying. “Not everyone can be helped, Dad.” She feels like her mom fought too hard, that not everyone can be a fighter, and that’s what ultimately killed her. Her mother’s battle with cancer and death has traumatized Nancy in ways she hasn’t dealt with because grief is a process. She’s still very much in it, and somehow her inability to accept death is ultimately what defines and eventually saves her.
A complete rejection of death is something I’ve felt a lot as I’m sure many have; even the acceptance of a loved one’s eventual passing isn’t something I can deal with in my own life. As human beings, we can’t possibly come to grips with what it means to lose someone we love anymore than we’re capable of fully comprehending the entirety of the ocean. The mysteries of both are part of what drives us to fear it … or face it. There are those who commit their lives to trying to understand and explore them, and Nancy’s unwillingness to accept what happened to her mother is the most flawed, human idea there is. No one wants to accept the inevitable. We want to believe we have control, but we can only control how we choose to face it.
Similar to 47 Meters Down, The Shallows is great at building up suspense; even after Nancy gets knocked off her board, I’m not ready for her to get yanked underwater by a giant set of great white shark teeth. There are a lot of movies about killer sharks out there, but not all of them successfully capture the sort of gripping suspense inspired directly from Jaws like these two films do. Whether that buildup in suspense is because your mechanical shark is malfunctioning or a deliberately timed delay, It’s not about the attack. It’s about the moments leading up to it when you’re on the edge of your seat and your entire body braces itself.
Nancy is really put through the ringer. Stranded on a rock in the shallows, 200 yards from the shore as a shark methodically circles her. Dehydrated. An infected leg from a shark bite. Little hope of rescue. Despite everything, she still ends up fighting like hell. She fashions herself a tourniquet out of wetsuit pieces and talks to herself like a doctor would a patient while suturing her wound with her own jewelry, effectively making use of every piece of her wardrobe in her fight for survival. She even tries to eat a gross-looking sea spider to presumably get some protein, which would be a hard no for me. Honestly, the only thing more impressive than the lengths to which Nancy goes to survive is the overwhelming compassion she maintains in the face of it. She still tries to save the drunk guy who takes her stuff on the beach while she’s screaming for help, but he gets bitten in half while trying to retrieve her surfboard from the water, so karma still exists. Despite sustaining her own injuries, she even takes the time to heal a seagull that gets trapped on her rock with a dislocated wing.
Maybe the premise is ridiculous — a girl who ends up fighting off a shark from a rock before the tide comes in — but it’s a tightly crafted film with heavy emotional impact that functions as one long stress-endurance test, flawless execution and a hell of a performance from Lively. I’ve been a fan of hers since Gossip Girl, and I have zero shame about that. She’s got a talent that people don’t give her enough credit for, and if you still don’t agree, clearly you haven’t seen A Simple Favor (please watch this movie, I’m literally dying). The range Lively is capable of bringing to a limited role like this is unmatched, and if I weren’t already on her side, I would have been as soon as she healed that damn bird because I’m a giant sucker. She carries this entire movie on her own, with only a few brief side characters, a shark and a seagull, and she does it with absolute grace and dignity despite the occasionally exploitative cleavage shot. Nancy is easy to root for with every increasingly stress-filled setback as she battles the biggest jerk of a shark that’s ever existed who, yes, is a metaphor for her fighting her own grief.
Also, the seagull is credited as Steven Seagull. More of these movies, please.
At the climax , the once-promising doctor makes a video documenting her injuries and says goodbye to her family in case she doesn’t make it. But there’s no part of Nancy that isn’t planning on survival. She tells them she’s going to fight, just like her mother taught them, and Nancy finally understands her mother’s choice: If you don’t fight, you die either way.
She chooses to fight.
An epic human-versus-shark battle brings the film to completion, a battle from which Nancy eventually (and thankfully) emerges victorious. That image of her curling her fist into the sand for the first time since her attack hits just the right note before the really big feelings come, when a dehydrated and delirious Nancy sees a vision of her mother above her and she tells her that she’s OK. The best films, even the scariest ones, are the ones that connect with you.
Grief is a funny thing. You’re never really done grieving, especially from the loss of a parent, but it comes in waves. You learn to adapt, and eventually you learn to move forward with every new wave that tries to pull you back under. Nancy’s story of survival and coming out on the other side of grief is a triumph for those who’ve lost someone, about the will it takes to survive the absolute worst thing that happens to you, whatever that may be. For Nancy, that was losing her mom, so a giant shark sure as heck wasn’t going to be the thing that takes her out.
Still, let’s have a moment of appreciation for that shark. So determined to make Nancy food that it diligently circles that damn rock for almost two days like clockwork, gets in a fight with a buoy, takes a finger to the eyeball and ultimately impales itself on some rusty metal just for the slight chance of eating Nancy. No one can say that shark didn’t work for its attempt at dinner.