Beach season is getting into full swing, so I'm back to my annual masochistic tradition of marathoning shark movies, ruining any chance I have of enjoying a dip in the ocean without over-thinking every shape and shadow in the water. But with so many variations on the genre, and new movies coming out every year, it's a miracle that anyone can keep things fresh, let alone scary. This summer's 47 Meters Down pulls off an original take, despite little critical or box-office love––it's definitely not Jaws, but with a 53 percent score on Rotten Tomatoes, it's way underrated. I walked away sore from tensing and squirming for 90 minutes, which has to be worth something.
So how does 47 Meters Down avoid just recycling old scares? Mostly by stripping down its premise and keeping it as contained and intense as possible. Two sisters vacationing in Mexico go cage-diving with great white sharks, and find themselves trapped at the bottom of the ocean––47 meters down––after their cage breaks loose. With limited oxygen, they find themselves having to wander out of the cage into the shark-filled open water periodically, looking for a way to save themselves. There's also a terribly boring and Bechdel-Wallace-test-bombing subplot about an ex-boyfriend, but that aside, the tension and jump-scares are pitch-perfect.
47 Meters Down isn't revolutionary, and it's not even a great movie, but it does up the ante enough to keep you on the edge of your seat and avoid feeling stale. Every other movie worth its weight in shark fins has done the same, whether that's Deep Blue Sea offering up genetically engineered, super-smart sharks, or Open Water going for a true-to-life handycam account of a couple lost at shark-infested sea.
In 2011's Shark Night 3D the sharks are transplanted into a saltwater lake by rednecks who like to feed them vacationers and film the carnage (the Saw and Hostel series were on their last legs, but this may have been an attempt to cash in on a leftover hunger for torture-porn). Then last year, The Shallows amped up the tension with a Cast Away-style set-up, with Blake Lively carrying most of the film while marooned on a reef, hoping to get back on land, while vulnerable to the elements and a hungry, circling great white.
That ticking clock and sense of hopelessness is even more pronounced in 47 Meters Down. As a premise, it's a gamble. The tension is pretty one-note. Can the sisters swim back up without being eaten before their oxygen runs out? Their options are limited to getting from A to B or giving up and suffocating. This brings up the question, how much more can we raise the stakes in shark movies?
To get some insight, VICE turned to Anthony C. Ferrante, who directed the mother of all envelope-pushing shark movies: Sharknado. Sharknado, in case you've been without internet access for the last decade , is just what it sounds like, increasing the threat of sharks by combining them with a tornado (or rather placing them in a tornado). It comes from Asylum, the production house also responsible for 2-Headed Shark Attack and its follow-ups 3-Headed Shark Attack and the upcoming 5-Headed Shark Attack (No, there isn't one missing. That's the whole series).
Ferrante is currently finishing up directing duties on Sharknado 5: Global Swarming and has directed every entry in the Syfy channel film series. Just as every new shark movie has to find new territory to explore, there's pressure to keep each Sharknado feeling fresh.
"We're a little different in the sense that it's not Jaws, it's not 47 Meters Down, because they're treating it a little more seriously, and we have to up the ante in a completely different way," Ferrante says. It's the goofiness of the premise that draws people in, so rather than keeping sharks scary, Ferrante had to aim for something else when preparing the first sequel. "We took the absurdity to the next level with the second one."
Sharknado does have something in common with more conventional shark movies, and genre movies in general, and that's the need to innovate. When you're working from a formula, it's the delicate combination of the familiar and the new that makes or breaks your movie. "We look at each movie as a different genre, which is what I think we do to make these different," says Ferrante, who describes Sharknado 3 as " White House Down with sharks" and Sharknado 4 as a superhero movie. Deep Blue Sea similarly added science fictionally enhanced sharks to build on the more reality-based blueprint of Jaws, the shark-film prototype and gold standard.
Ferrante also leaves himself a lot of room, creatively, to avoid writing himself into a corner. "One of the rules that we always have is we never really explain what's going on. It's not sharks. It's not a tornado. It's a sharknado. And the rules are whatever we make up in the next movie," he says. "We can change the rules whenever we want."
Less absurd attempts at shark-attack cinema don't have quite the same wiggle room, but they can still bring something new to the table. "I think The Shallows last year was a really amazing movie," says Ferrante. "I thought they did a great job with that. It's a smart, contained film, and they sustained it for 90 minutes."
He keeps track of what's happening with the genre, because it's a rich source of inspiration. "It opens up a lot of possibilities when these other movies come out. There's still stuff that can be done in the genre."
Without a doubt, people love their shark content. The mainstream fascination with sharks is all over the map. The death of filmmaker and conservationist Rob Stewart earlier this year was mourned internationally. Stewart had spent years fighting to protect sharks and soften their public image, most famously in his 2006 doc Sharkwater. In the trailer for follow-up Sharkwater: Extinction, Stewart suggests that over 150 million sharks are killed each year, compared to the average of five people killed by sharks in the same timespan. That conservation spirit is far-reaching enough to support a yearly Shark-Con in Tampa, Florida (Ferrante was a guest speaker at this year's convention).
Beyond this, the Discovery Channel's Shark Week is the longest-running programming event on cable TV (and has a history of mixing high-quality shark docs with pseudoscientific fluff). Now Syfy has its own Sharknado Week to feature titles like Atomic Shark, Jersey Shore Shark Attack, Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus, and of course the Sharknado series. And then there's the impressive legacy of Jaws, which includes everything from Italian knock-offs like Great White , to The Shallows and 47 Meters Down.
"People are still terrified of sharks," says Ferranti, "You keep hearing about these shark attacks on beaches and stuff, so it's something that's relatable. The scary [movies] are relatable because you're afraid of sharks, and I think that Sharknado is what you would like to do if you were faced with a shark."
He gets that his niche isn't in the scares, but it's all part of the same ongoing phenomenon. "Someone told me that Jaws made their kids scared to go into the water, and Sharknado made it okay for them to like sharks again, because they made them laugh," he says. "We're on the two opposite ends of a spectrum."
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