Friday, August 16, 2019

Shark Bait in Bikinis: "47 Meters Down: Uncaged" tense and ridiculous in equal measure


47 Meters Down: Uncaged (2019)
89 min.
Release Date: August 16, 2019 (Wide)

2017’s sleeper hit “47 Meters Down” about two sisters (Mandy Moore, Claire Holt) trapped in a cage on the ocean floor was an immensely effective cinematic panic attack that exploited every aqua-related phobia. Without much surprise when box-office receipts can talk, writer-director Johannes Roberts (2018’s “The Strangers: Prey at Night”) and co-writer Ernest Riera are back for “47 Meters Down: Uncaged,” an in-name-only sequel that has no cages or a hyperventilating Mandy Moore, but it certainly has sharks, two (step)sisters, and a nod to Matthew Modine (who played the boat captain in the first film), with the characters attending Modine International School for Girls, to fall under the same brand. Like a “Friday the 13th” sequel with a sprinkle of 2006’s superior spelunking nightmare “The Descent,” “47 Meters Down: Uncaged” is ridiculously tense and just plain ridiculous in equal measure, and shark-movie fans wouldn’t have it any other way.

Bullied teenager Mia (Sophia Nélisse) and her popular stepsister, Sasha (Corinne Foxx, daughter of Jamie), have moved with their parents, Grant (John Corbett) and Jennifer (a sadly underused Nia Long), to the Yucatán Peninsula, where Dad, an underwater architect, leads an archaeological expedition into the Mayan caves. For some much-needed bonding time, their parents buy the girls a glass-bottom boat ride in shark-infested waters. At the tourist attraction, Sasha gets scooped up by her best friends, Alexa (Brianne Tju) and Nicole (Sistine Stallone, daughter of Sylvester), and they drag Mia along for once. Off a cliff and into a lagoon with a raft that has four scuba tanks waiting for them, the sisters are swayed by Nicole and Alexa to swim down to the underwater Mayan ruins, a labyrinthine submerged city of narrow tunnels. Though the girls plan to only take one lap around the catacombs and then swim back to the surface, they knock over an underwater column that collapses and seals off their exit. Instead, their damage unleashes evolved creatures of the deep. Will they run out of oxygen first or get taken out by the blind albino sharks?

Before filmmaker Johannes Roberts feels the need to employ so many increasingly laughable slow-motion flourishes, he decidedly knows how to keep piling on the peril for its characters in this extreme Murphy’s Law scenario. A foolish/selfish act involving an ascender is nerve-racking; one character’s grim final moment, being faced with a deadly current, grabbed by a shark, and then taking off their scuba gear to escape the jaws and drown instead, is rawly terrifying; and there is one jump-worthy demise of an optimistic leader that apes the way Samuel L. Jackson went in 1999’s “Deep Blue Sea.” And, if Johannes Roberts paired Bonnie Tyler's "Total Eclipse of the Heart" with a murder sequence in and around a swimming pool to inspired effect in “The Strangers: Prey at Night,” he has his way with The Carpenter’s “We’ve Only Just Begun” as an ill-fated supporting male character is being stalked in the underwater shadows. Then there's the finale, which is as absurd as it is wildly entertaining when the survivors think their nightmare is over.

While not as intensely claustrophobic as its tenuous predecessor, “48 Meters Down: Uncaged” doesn’t even start with much reassurance. “Cave diving is dangerous,” the meek Mia says in earnest, at which point Nicole mockingly repeats her. Giving the actors the benefit of the doubt since a lot of the dialogue is like that—stiff and on-the-nose—the performances are charismatic and competent at best, as they sell their fear and panic and make us care just enough that nothing bad will happen to them. A jump scare with a screaming fish (who knew?) causes a bad laugh rather than the startle as intended, and though logic isn’t exactly the film’s strong suit, these nubile amateur divers are somehow able to hear and talk to each other via radios, even though their masks don’t cover their ears. 

When the characters shut up, there is a skilled amount of hold-your-breath, cover-your-eyes tension and a number of jolts as the sneaky sharks make themselves known with a “boo!” Composers tomandandy, once again, effectively fuel the dread with their droning, moaning score, but at the same time, returning cinematographer Mark Silk’s underwater photography is sometimes too obscure to make out who is who, silt getting kicked up into the frame notwithstanding. Once the film finally gets going and sticks to the stressful dead-end situations that keep stacking the cards against these four girls in their fight for survival, “47 Meters Down: Uncaged” delivers enough morsels of fun to make when-nature-attacks cinephiles bite before another fish in the sea arrives.

Grade: C +

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