Below
review by Elias Savada, 18 October 2002

As underwater ghost stories go, Below casts its spooky net out into the Atlantic Ocean and spits it back, grizzled and charred, somewhere northwest of the Bermuda Triangle. Compared to the other creepshow entertainment (the dreadfully predictable Abandon, the aging Red Dragon, and Dreamworks' passable Americanized nightmare The Ring) trying to scare up some pre-Halloween business, and despite some lapses in logic, both in the script and by the distributor, Below rises above the rest of its horror compatriots. It ain't half bad. Das Boot it isn't. Too bad Dimension Films has such little faith in its World War II horror tale that it's releasing it in just a handful theaters throughout the Washington, DC metropolitan area.

Director David Twohy, a strong visualist who scared the bejeebers out of us with Pitch Black, his B-movie, outer space homage to things-that-go-bump-in-the-night (and brought a then relatively unknown actor named Vin Diesel out of the dark), now takes us back to August 1943, when the U.S.S. Tiger Shark dives under the blood red skies as a seemingly standard issue cat-and-mouse caper and surfaces 105 minutes later with a severe case of what the director calls submarine noir.

Darren Aronofsky (Pi, Requiem for a Dream) has his name attached to the project, as author (with Twohy and Lucas Sussman) and producer (with Sue Baden-Powell and Eric Watson), but this looks and feels like a Twohy show, laden with technically competent computer and visual effects (supervised by Peter Chiang), strong, creative photography (Ian Wilson), terrific production design (Charles Lee), and crisp editing (Martin Hunter), not to mention a tense score by Graeme Revell.

With a less-than-full crew commanded by the edgy Lieutenant Brice (Bruce Greenwood) and assisted by Lieut. J.G. Steven Coors (Felicity's Scott Foley) and Gunner's Mate Loomis (Holt McCallany), three survivors of a torpedoed British hospital ship find themselves the unwelcomed guests aboard the Tiger Shark. Nurse Claire Page is the wrench in the sub's secret equation, a serious nurse fearful of revealing too much about her half-dead patient and the sunken ships' second mate Kingsley (Dexter Fletcher).

With the Germans bearing down on them, any mysteries surrounding the scuttled ship's destruction are temporarily put aside by Ensign Odell (Matt Davis), on his first extended mission, for a CGI barrage of depth charges, which do indeed shake, rattle, and roll the boat halfway across the Equator and back, including one gravity-defying stunt where the cast finds itself momentarily stuck to the TOP of the boat. The tension is ratcheted up one escalating level after another every few minutes, first by the Germans chasing them (including one of those depth charges that eerily bounces along the deck of the boat before stopping mid-ship, balanced on a guide wire) and then by a series of mysterious occurrences that befuddle the crew and their guests.

Despite the script's shortcomings, the film sports a steady, increasing edge albeit encased in a heavy dose of Shakespearian melodrama. At one point, a copy of The Tragedies of William Shakespeare is spiritually tossed at Claire. She's also the unknowing brunt of a funny game of telephone, wherein she's announced to the crew by a variety of synonyms (female, skirt, woman, bazooma, filly, bleeder, and another piece of rotten luck).

The cinematography is aggressively claustrophobic, cold, and steely blue, including a good portion of the last half-hour that is shot in near darkness. One gorgeous shot features Greenwood's upper face close to the periscope, his eye reflecting an approaching enemy vessel. Another nice effect features one of the officers playing catch up with a recalcitrant reflection. The mirror wins.

As for that half-dead patient, he ends up worse off, but as the sub's hydrogen levels rise, its periscopes and sonar are destroyed by huge grappling hooks, and the crew's morale sinks, all efforts at practical joking (especially Jason Flemyng as Stumbo, who finds himself listening to a dead German) end with deadly earnest. There is some exceptional mise-en-scene that starts with a dropped hammer and ends a half-minute later with a leaking fountain pen. But this lovely snippet is stranded in the middle of a sluggish haunted house, and that's where the screenplay starts to exhibit "hydraulic failure." It needs a bigger boost in that thing we call plot.

As an underwater spook fest, with a crew of sailors anxious to live another day, there are precious few places to hide these shortcomings in Below, but Twohy (who makes has cameo as a British captain at the film's end) nonetheless keeps you emotionally entangled. His technicians have crafted an impressive shell. Too bad the shell-shocked script, stopping way short of the twilight zone, couldn't have been sharpened to match the glossy exterior.

Directed by:
David Twohy

Starring:
Matt Davis
Bruce Greenwood
Olivia Williams
Holt McCallany
Scott Foley
Zach Galifianakis
Jason Flemyng
Dexter Fletcher

Written by:
Lucas Sussman
Darren Aronofsky
David Twohy

Rating:
R - Restricted.
Under 17 requires
parent or adult
guardian.

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