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
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.
R - Restricted.
parent or adult