“Jaws,” the movie that did for sharks what “Psycho” did for showers, was rooted in the primal fear that drove its famous opening scene: the terror of having your body shredded by razory teeth and engulfed in a great white gullet. In its limb-shearing way, it caught the fear of getting sucked into a tiny (sharp) abyss. Yet part of the power of “Jaws” is that it was also an adventure drama of thrillingly wide-open space. The anxiety was dark and concentrated, the seascape enticing and vast.
But the movies made in the shadow of “Jaws” have tended to be waterlogged chamber thrillers. “Open Water,” released in 2003, was easily the most ingenious of them. It was like the opening scene of “Jaws” extended to 90 minutes — and amazingly, the director, Chris Kentis, sustained the tension. (I’m not sure why he didn’t sustain his career.) No other “Jaws” knockoff has been half as good. And more often than not, the cramped-space aesthetic now rules. “Crawl” featured a face-off against Florida alligators set in an old dark basement (which just made me want to escape), and in “47 Meters Down: Uncaged,” the worthy-for-what-it-is sequel to 2017’s “47 Meters Down” (which is to say, it’s just as lurid and flashy and one-dimensional and grade-Z okay), four high-school girls fend off a great white shark while scuba diving through the stone ruins of a Mayan city. These minimalist “Jaws” retreads intertwine the fear of being eaten alive with the fear of being enclosed. They’re claustrophobic flesh thrillers.
Remember how the suspense films of the ’60s and ’70s (most famously “Thunderball”) would often have an underwater sequence, with bubbles and spear guns and elegant nautical chases in wet suits? The dialogue would always cut out, which is why the scenes never lasted for more than a few minutes. In “47 Meters Down: Uncaged,” the heart of the action is set underwater, though now there is dialogue. The girls talk to each other through radio mics, pinging their lines back and forth. But we don’t, for the most part, see them talking, so the effect is curiously disembodied and remote; it’s like watching a badly post-synched thriller. Once they get underwater, there’s little sense of who each character is. Even on a potboiler level, they’re just human chum in waiting.
To the extent that “Uncaged” has a story, it’s about how Mia (Sophie Nélisse), who has been living with her marine-archaeologist father (John Corbett), her stepmother (Nia Long), and her stepsister, Sasha (Corinne Fox), on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, acts out the alienation she’s feeling by skipping out on a glass-bottom-boat tour and following Sasha and two friends (Sistine Stallone and Brianne Tju) — i.e., the only mean girls in school who don’t completely despise her — on an afternoon of playing hooky. They travel to a reservoir in the middle of a viny forest, knowing that the ruins of the Mayan city lie beneath that woodland pool. The slightly delinquent excitement of the day is that they’re going to explore the first section or two of it.
What they don’t count on is the decaying columns that come crashing down, the labyrinth of catacombs that disorient and entrap them, and the gigantic shark, with a scarred hide that bespeaks years of hungry slicing through the rough seas, that’s swimming around the premises. Its open mouth is fearsome, its body has the power of a torpedo, and it will shoot right at you if you’re directly in front of it; it not, it will move forward, oblivious. The director, Johannes Roberts, has fully absorbed the heightened documentary aesthetic of TV shark porn — all those shots of gaping triangle-tooth maws that show you what “Jaws” revealed only in teasing glimpses. The shark sequences in “Uncaged” are scarier than the ones in “The Meg,” and that’s partly because the movie delivers the horrifying payoff we on some level crave: to see people get chomped.
At times, this tale of four young women trying to rescue each other in an underwater maze — as opposed to the two caged vacation divers of “47 Meters Down” — suggests a variation on “The Descent,” the 2005 spelunking thriller. It takes a lot of chops to shoot the majority of a movie underwater, and Johannes Roberts is a skillful crafter of images; he sets one eerie sequence to the echoey sounds of “We’ve Only Just Begun.” But he’s a throw-what-he-can-at-the-audience director, and there’s little in “47 Meters Down: Uncaged” that really sticks. The shocks, however, are consistently well-timed, and for the audience that seeks out a movie like this one that’s probably enough. One character gets consumed right in the middle of giving an inspirational speech about how they’re all going to survive. That’s the difference between a decent “Jaws” knockoff and a lousy one. The one that cuts the mustard will use death, at least once, to make you grin.