Sunday 4 April 2010

A Watery Grave: Below

I've got a soft spot for David Twohy.  I don't know why.  Actually, that's a total lie.  I'm just not going to share my reasons.  The point is, I like to watch David Twohy films.  I don't go out of my way to find them, mind you, but when one comes across my consciousness, I make a point of getting a copy.  It was while I was researching something else, that I learned about Below.

It was pointed out to me by a friend that there is a niche of horror criticism seemingly made just for me: underwater genre films.  Not long after that enlightening conversation, I began making a list of movies that fit the bill and low and behold, I found Below.

The year is 1946 and an American sub is on patrol in the Atlantic.  They receive orders to pick up survivors from a downed hospital ship: two men and a woman.  News of the woman on board spreads in manner of seconds and dredges up superstition in some of the men.  These feelings are punctuated by depth charges, dropped by a German ship that is busily hunting the sub.  The presence of a female, however, is least of the their problems as there appears to be someone else on board a lot more dangerous than one lone woman.  Clair, however, does prove to be a nuisance as she grows increasingly curious about the sub's current CO, Lieutenant Brice.

This movie has three writers.  Usually I'd take that as a bad sign, but though the story isn't all that inspired, the script itself isn't all that bad.  All the action in the film is confined to the submarine.  Normally a single-location story is largely character driven, but Below manages to balance character and plot.  The interpersonal conflicts that exist between the men are underscored by the very real dangers of living in a submarine.  Moreover, the fact that no one can actually leave the sub gives the movie a rather claustrophobic feel, which makes the tense situation on board that much worse.

I'll be the first to admit that David Twohy is by no means the world's greatest filmmaker, in spite of the fact that I like his stuff.  A lot of what I've seen of his, the things he's written or directed or both, have this weird unfulfilled quality to them.  Like how A Perfect Getaway totally botched its premise with self-conscious meth-addicted main characters, or how Waterworld downplayed biological evolution in favour of pseudo-religious power struggles.  Despite the tense situation in Below, the film is rather subdued.  It makes me think Twohy was trying for a slow burn, yet the tension breaks before the film's climax resulting in a weird anti-climactic climax.  Still, Twohy displays a confidence in his filmmaking that manages to permeate his movies--he knows what he's doing.

That having been said, there's this one scene in Below that I just don't believe.  After the sub sustains some damage, four men don dive gear so they can go outside and fix the problem.  They will free-dive (meaning they will not have any breathing apparatus) between the the outer and inner hull, surfacing in the partially-flooded compartment between the hulls.  The problem is, they appear to be using early scuba gear and have no gloves.  The bottom of the Atlantic ocean is a cold place and even though the wrongly-termed "free dive" part of the dive lasts about a minute, there is just no way those men aren't suffering from exposure because that water is effing cold.  Additionally, while the men are outside the sub, they're startled by a pack of rays that swim by.  It's a good moment because the idea that the sub might be haunted has been building up to this point and the ray's ventral surface is ghost-like in appearance.  Unfortunately, there are no rays, at least that that I know of, that live in the deep northern Atlantic.

These blunders aside, the film succeeds in creating an atmosphere of dread, if somewhat watered-down. Submarine movies are great for exploring our primal fear of downing, and though Below doesn't maximize its potential for psychological torment, it still manages to remind us of our vulnerabilities.

scariness: 2/5
underwteryness: 3.5/5


B-Sol said...

A fine first effort! Loving the technical analysis :-)

DM said...

Thank ye, thank ye!