Written by: Ernest Riera, Johannes Roberts
Directed by: Johannes Roberts
Starring: Sophie Nélisse, Corinne Foxx, Brianne Tju
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
You'll wish you were in a cage.
47 Meters Down is among the most unlikely franchises in recent memory, and not just because its premise doesn’t exactly lend itself to sequels, at least at first blush. Rather, the original film came within a hair’s breadth of going straight-to-video titled In the Deep before Entertainment Studios rescued it from Dimension a week before its scheduled release, just as copies of the film’s DVD were already floating around retail. In an alternate universe, 47 Meters Down—er, In the Deep—came and went without much fanfare outside of shark movie aficionados (shut up, we are legion). In reality, though, it was a big enough box office hit to earn a sequel in 47 Meters Down: Uncaged, a worthy follow-up that confirms that this premise does have some pretty strong sea legs after all. It turns out that watching sharks stalk and chomp down idiot deep-sea divers is a lot of fun, especially when it takes on the feeling of a slasher film.
Given the original film’s ending, it should come as no surprise that Uncaged represents a clean narrative break. This one’s set in Mexico, where meek schoolgirl Mia (Sophie Nélisse) is having trouble fitting in with other kids, especially the mean girls that push her into the pool. Step-sister Sasha (Corinne Fox) is too cool to be of any help, much to the dismay of the girls’ parents. Sensing an opportunity to help the girls bond, their deep-sea archaeologist father (John Corbett) books them on a glass-bottom boat tour. However, Sasha’s friends have other plans and lure the sisters away to a hidden retreat that just happens to be the father’s dive site. Conveniently, some diving equipment has been left behind, virtually daring the four girls to take a peek at the ruins of the ancient Mayan burial ground down below.
Not the brightest idea, in my opinion; at worst, you’re gonna stir up some vengeful demonoid. At best, you’re gonna encounter blind, albino great white sharks that have evolved into elite killing machines after dwelling in pitch-black depths for millions of years. Either way, you get what you deserve. The audience mostly does, too. Uncaged knows why it exists: sure, it honors the pretense of “character work” and “drama” with its cliched, thinly-sketched shark bait caricatures, but there’s a reason these girls dive into the water about 15 minutes into the movie. You’re here to see a bunch of sharks terrorize them, and the film is even considerate enough to do that in less than 90s minutes.
What’s interesting is that returning director Johannes Roberts isn’t here just for the shark carnage. Instead, he tosses slasher schlock, claustrophobic tension, and funhouse spook-a-blasts into a blender to craft a pretty intense thrill-ride. Before the sharks even appear, the film is suffocatingly intense, as the girls quickly lose their way in the labyrinthine ruins of the sunken city. Adrift amongst murky water and the skeletal remains scattered throughout the catacombs, they desperately search for a means of escape before their oxygen completely dwindles. Honestly, it’s a solid enough concept without adding sharks to the mix: I can think of few things as genuinely terrifying as being trapped underwater as certain death encroaches. Being eaten by a shark seems merciful by comparison.
But, of course, there are sharks involved, because that’s the brand here. Well, sharks and overcooked family drama, I guess. The shark action is mostly solid: I do have some reservations about the shark effects, which look a little bit cartoonish at times, perhaps due to the albino design itself. We’re not talking SyFy level effects, but some shots are noticeably dodgy. There’s also the sinking feeling that Roberts doesn’t quite realize the full potential of a slasher movie featuring sharks. At one point, he sets up a killer sight gag, only to balk, leaving the audience disappointed at a character’s survival. That’s not an indictment of the thin character work so much as it’s a baffling decision to not deliver what the audience really craves. Likewise, Roberts missteps with certain beats, like the revelation of a second shark that might have been a clever surprise but is instead treated as a casual reveal. One girl simply dies from drowning, which feels cinematically mundane when you’ve got giant sharks swarming about.
Now that those nitpicks are out of the way, let me reassure you that Uncaged really works when it needs to. Roberts is a hell of a shooter, even when his camera is submerged underwater. It might be fair to say that this film’s parts are better than the whole, but those parts really sing. The sharks are essentially like ghosts in a haunted house movie, always lurking and waiting to burst onto the screen for a jolt. Two of the jump scares are among the best in recent memory, even. Uncaged also has an impressive bite for a PG-13 movie, though the bloodshed often becomes a footnote to the film’s rollicking approach and the stylish nature of Roberts’s outbursts.
A crimson-soaked freak-out is a standout sequence in a film with a few memorable highlights. Sharks mercilessly rip one character apart; another is Sam Jacksoned because you should absolutely never attempt a rousing speech in a shark movie; Roberts even tries to replicate the needle-drop panache of Strangers: Prey at Night at one point. Did you know you watching a shark stalk someone to the strains of The Carpenters’ “We’ve Only Just Begun” could be absolutely haunting? You do now.
In many ways, Roberts’s approach to Uncaged mirrors that of his Strangers sequel: it’s a bigger, more wide-open, and less restrained take that remains faithful enough to the original while being unafraid to have fun with the formula. He honors the stuff that made 47 Meters Down work so well—the claustrophobic intensity and grisly shark carnage—but injects them with a wry sense of glee. You know how Spielberg decided that Jaws shouldn’t end with a shot of more sharks descending upon Brody and Hooper because it’d be too mean? Roberts doesn’t exactly have those kind of qualms. He puts these characters through an absolute meat-grinder, almost to the point of absurdity. If the lack of oxygen doesn’t kill the girls, then the sharks will. If the sharks don’t finish the job, then the unpredictable vortex of the ocean’s current will surely do the trick.
While that particular wrinkle results in a redundant stretch towards the end, it reflects Roberts’s commitment to utter, rollicking chaos that reaches a fever pitch with a hoot of a climax. You’ll probably guess where the action is going to end up, but you might not be quite prepared for how ridiculous it is. At this point, Uncaged almost feels like a crowd-pleasing rejoinder to the original film’s bummer twist, which revealed that most of the climax there was a hallucination hiding the fact that one of the sisters actually died. This one is hallucinatory in a different way: it’s so over-the-top that you subconsciously prepare yourself for the same reveal. There’s no way they’re really going this broad with it, you tell yourself as a character fires a flare gun at a shark in an effort to free a girl trapped in the beast’s mouth. Ditto for the moment a girl brandishes a shark tooth as a weapon to free herself from the same razor-sharp grip. Thankfully, this sequel doesn’t resort to the same trick as its predecessor and embraces the urge to go buck wild without walking it back.
That said, Uncaged still leaves me with the nagging feeling that it’s still missing something. Like The Meg before it, it forgoes an opportunity to stage show-stopping mass carnage that would have been like a gory cherry atop a fairly gnarly treat. Some might argue that it wouldn’t be faithful to the film’s intimate stakes; I would argue that the characters remaining at the end only had about ten minutes of development at best and spend most of the movie delivering canned ADR’ed lines. Forgive me if I don’t exactly see Uncaged as a genuinely riveting story of family melodrama that just happens to involve sharks. Roberts might see it that way, though, at least a little bit. There’s a corny sincerity to both 47 Meters Down movies (but especially this one) that’s admirable in the face of the completely farcical takes on the shark movies. Uncaged teeters on the edge of absolute bullshit but manages to awkwardly straddle the line.
While I’m left wanting a little more, I can also admit that even a little more might be enough to upset the delicate balance on display here. You get a little bit of everything—killer sharks, funhouse scares, the power of flare guns and sisterhood—without feeling like it’s too much stuffed into 85 brisk minutes. Besides, I suppose it’s not the worst thing to be left wanting more if future installments are on the horizon, and I sincerely hope they are. After all, something is going to have to satisfy our biennial craving to watch a pair of sisters face down Earth’s most fearsome predators now that 47 Meters Down has officially made that a thing.
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