ekm’s 31 NIGHTS OF HORROR: EVENING 28 – DUMB SHARK MOVIES
Nothing sucks more than a great idea gone to pot. Originality is a four-letter word in mainstream genre film, so it’s always exciting to see what young, starving filmmakers come up with, having only a few dollars to spend on cast and crew. Sometimes you end up with some boring indie melodrama with pretentious trailers and a melancholy ad campaign (I have been accused of this), but occasionally you end up with a Donnie Darko, a Cabin Fever, a Memento. Sometimes the absence of unlimited resources and astronomical budgets can be liberating rather than restrictive, forcing a writer or director to use their minds rather than their checkbook. If you need further proof of this, look at the George Lucas of 1977 and compare him to the later incarnation, and tell me if you see a difference.
One of the ways in which filmmakers have made the most of their meager budgets is to create Locked Room scenarios, in which a scenario plays out in a singular location, with only the occasional “escape” by way of flashback. Tarantino did this with RESERVOIR DOGS; Tom Hardy had a feature-length phone call in LOCKE. Horror has made excellent use of the black box method in films as diverse as BURIED, DEVIL, UNFRIENDED, TRUTH OR DARE, and countless others.
I think this is why it breaks my heart so much to have enjoyed OPEN WATERas little as I did, having watched (and re-watched) the trailer multiple times and hearing such strong word of mouth. Sure, it’s pretty obvious why viewers would want to check this out: after all, it’s about a guy and his wife stranded in the middle of the ocean with a hungry shark; but to me, that was just the icing on the cake. What we had here was the potential for a layered character study, a film propelled forward by force of personality rather than Boo! moments. Sadly, OPEN WATERisn’t just light on characterization, but light on logic, as well.
This is the part where I usually sum up the plot in an easily digestible Information Nugget; but to be honest, I’ve already sketched it out for you — in relative detail — during the previous paragraph. A couple go vacationing in the Bahamas, and while scuba diving in shark-infested waters, are inadvertently left behind by their boat. Then they float around for the rest of the surprisingly short running time, alternating between screaming and crying as the world’s dumbest shark spends two days deciding whether or not to eat them alive.
Do they survive? Does the boat come back to rescue them, or are they both devoured by predators? I’m not going to tell you, but I will say this: ten minutes into the film, I decided I disliked both characters so much that, by the end, it didn’t matter to me whether they lived or died. The first problem I detected was the utter lack of characterization, a rather glaring problem in a film that will, presumably, be fueled by it. Because we’re never properly introduced to the couple, and because their names absolutely refused to stay inside my head, I began mentally referring to them as Big Whiny Pussy (Daniel Travis) and Frigid Bitch (Blanchard Ryan). Big Whiny Pussy (henceforth referred to as BWP) earned his new name because…well, he was tall, he complained a lot, and he acted like a walking, talking vagina. Frigid Bitch (whose name I won’t shorten, as she deserves her title far too much) doesn’t want to spend time with BWP, doesn’t want to have sex with him, and can’t even put her cell phone down for five minutes when the pair take a much-needed vacation. Yeah, they’re spending time together, but anyone who bothers to look can see there’s no love between the two, no genuine compassion. They’re two people who’ve grown apart but are too busy with their hectic daily routines to do anything about it.
Now, why is he complaining? you might be asking yourselves. Couldn’t their dysfunctional relationship create a more dramatic — and ultimately more satisfying — character arc? Well, if that’s what you’re wondering, then pat yourselves on the back, because I was expecting that, too. I figured the two would either rediscover their love through this traumatic experience, or else the situation would prove to be the breaking point for their relationship. We don’t receive either, unfortunately: instead, they bicker a little, but for the most part, they float around and make idiotic decisions.
What kind of decisions am I referring to? Well, let me pose a few hypothetical situations, and answer them for yourselves, if you would.
- If you were deep sea diving in shark-infested waters, would you return to your boat in a timely fashion, or wait so long that they missed your absence and left without you?
- If you were stranded in the middle of the ocean and saw a boat on either side of you, would you swim towards one of them, or just float around waving your arms, hoping they’d see you?
- If you were stranded in the middle of the ocean and had neglected to swim toward the two boats you’d seen earlier, and now discovered a floating buoy a few yards away, would you swim toward it, or continue to allow the current to carry you further and further away?
- If you were dehydrated, would you drink salt water and then be surprised when it made you sick?
Basically, you’ve got two characters that bob up and down for a while, complaining the whole time, and passing up every opportunity to actually do something about the problem. Between the fact that they’re so absolutely clueless, as well as the fact that they’re such unlikable people, you can’t really bring yourself to care whether or not the shark eats them.
The shark presents a whole other set of problems. My understanding is that if a shark decides it’s going to eat you, you’re fucked. It comes up, chomps off a leg or a lower section or something, and there isn’t a whole lot you can do to about it. Well, in this case, our antagonist just kind of swims about, circling the annoying couple, taking a small bite here and a small bite there. There’s plenty of blood in the water; but BWP and Frigid Bitch don’t bother to swim away from the scent they’ve left, and Moron Shark doesn’t bother to eat them. What you end up with is a shark that swims around in circles for two days and a couple who continue to scream their heads off despite the fact that the shark doesn’t seem all that hungry anyway.
OPEN WATER is written and directed by Chris Kentis, whose previosu film is 1997’s GRIND(one of those boring, talky indie films I previously mentioned). Kentis came up with a great idea, but drops the ball almost immediately. He gives us neither compelling characters nor strong actors to portray them; and by removing the human element and potential dramatic arc, we end up with a fairly mundane Killer Shark Movie. Even the pseudo-documentary style camerawork is mismanaged, as Kentis seems incapable of framing a simple shot (like Frigid Bitch making a phone call, for instance); and sound is terrible, particularly during interior scenes. It’s like the movie was recorded and mixed on an answering machine.
But is OPEN WATER the dumbest Shark Movie of all time? Hahaha, no.
Like any other movie (and let’s just get this out of the way – this is a movie, not a film), 47 METERS DOWN opens with a studio logo. Twentieth Century Fox? Nope. Paramount? Guess again. Warner Brothers? Give up? The correct answer — Entertainment Studios Motion Pictures, a company that earns its title by sheer virtue of how hilariously clumsy those four words are when spoken aloud. Try it right now; say it aloud and note its graceful music, like bricks falling from the tongue into an unflushed toilet. Now take this to the next logical step and imagine actually watching something this studio produced and ask yourself: can it possibly live up to the dedicated promise of an entertainment studio’s motion picture? One has to assume that whatever it was, it would be either the greatest or most terrible thing imaginable, like room temperature pizza, flip flops, or Enya.
And then the movie actually begins, announced as if from the heavens by the artful and in no way gratuitous up-the-ass shot of a swimming Claire Holt (entertainment!), followed by the VERY BIG TITLE. Disregard what you’ve seen in previews, on the poster, or billboards nowhere: this isn’t called simply 47 METERS DOWN, friends. This is “JOHANNES ROBERTS’ 47 METERS DOWN.” And because we’ve all heard of Johannes Roberts, his full-blown Lee Daniels-style narcissism is clearly the earned result of a stream of bona fide hit films and cancer vaccines. Entertainment Studios Motion Pictures is in it to win it.
Have you ever wanted to see Mandy Moore fight the world’s (second) dumbest cartoon shark? Of course you have! Who wouldn’t? But before you begin pre-judging, you have to understand what sets this apart from some cheap, SyFy Channel movie with C-list actors, terrible effects, and more run time than plot, is that the fact that this is a cheap theatrical release with C-list actors, terrible effects, and more run time than plot. This is a film that teaches important lessons to rich white girls, like the perils of shark tank-diving, and having anything to do with Mexicans on their home turf. On the BIG SCREEN.
Moore and Holt play vacationing sisters who decide that swimming with sharks will help Moore get over her traumatic breakup with her whatever seriously who cares. They go out to water on a filthy boat called the “Sea Esta” where Captain Matthew Modine accidentally leaves them stranded in a cage at the ocean floor when their support cable breaks (SEE: Mexicans). In order to build suspense, director Roberts creates all sorts of scenarios involving limited oxygen that never runs out despite the movie constantly threatening that it will, and an inescapable box that’s only inescapable when the movie needs it to be. At no time are we ever confused by what’s going on: the air pressure bar the characters carry, and by which they (and we) know how much air they have left, is helpfully marked AIR PRESSURE BAR. This is for the benefit of audience members who normally require their slightly quicker friends to explain movies to them in real time because they normally only watch movies like 47 METERS DOWN. It almost comes as a surprise that the boat isn’t marked BOAT, the shark isn’t marked SHARK, or the production company isn’t named ENTERTAINMENT STUDIOS MOTION PICTURES. Oh, wait, never mind.
We can be grateful for the fact that Moore doesn’t sing, but that doesn’t mean she shuts up, even underwater. The scuba masks are those kind that only exist in movies, where you can wear them and still speak clearly, and hear sounds like, for example, the shrill metallic banging on a steel cage one hundred and fifty feet below the surface. You can also remove the mask if needed, and put it back on without said mask filling with water, despite the absence of a discharge valve, thereby allowing a continuation of 1) life, 2) dialogue, and 3) this never-ending movie. The ability for our heroines to chatter on and on grants us the gift of ironic foreshadowing (“IT KIND OF TAKES YOUR BREATH AWAY, DOESN’T IT?” and “I COULD STAY DOWN HERE FOREVER!”), followed by endless sobbing/screaming/panting.
Sometimes there’s a shark. Sometimes there’s two sharks. They’re never on screen for very long, because aside from looking really, really fake, it’s expensive to have them actually interact with the human characters in a believable way. As such, Moore and Holt take turns sneaking out of the cage, and then RAAAHR!, the shark appears, followed by our protagonists managing to completely out swim marine predators in a way that’s completely believable and in no way a complete and total brain-breaking insult to common sense. There’s literally more tension in the snapped cable. How do sharks miss chomping slow-moving and wounded people from a distance of a foot or so, you ask? Shut up and stop asking questions, idiot.
The most successful aspect of 47 METERS DOWN is the way in which we feel as though, like the characters, we too are trapped in an inescapable cage, forced to endure a miserable situation that never seems to end. Symbolism or life imitating art? Call it 2017’s best example of audience-interactive filmmaking. For this, Johannes Roberts earns his name over the title.
FUN FACT: If you take a shot every time Matthew Modine explains the concept of decompression sickness (aka “the bends”), you will die smarter than this movie.
Erik Kristopher Myers (aka ekm)