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Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2003

A flick that swims and sinks


Rating: * * 2/1 (out of 5)
Director: David Twohy
Running time: 105 minutes
Language: English
Currently showing

Films set on submarines always tap two basic sources of fear: drowning in a vast ocean and suffocating in a confined space. But "Below" is not your usual submarine flick: It might deploy both these fears to maximum effect, albeit a little too often, but it's a horror movie, too.

News photo
Matthew Davis in David Twohy's "Below"

Directed by David Twohy -- who switched from award-winning Hollywood screenwriter to cult-status filmmaker (see "The Arrival," a unique but under-appreciated alien flick) -- "Below" aims to provide real, authentic scares instead of the standard horror fare of titillation and gore. And it delivers -- for about 60 percent of its running time. But, unfortunately, it then loses momentum. The same scare buttons are pushed time and time again, and familiarity is a truly terrible thing in a horror movie. It's like going to a haunted house in an amusement park and being forced to stay for half an hour rather than the usual five minutes. Pretty soon, you've seen it all, so you just start laughing at the horrors rather than jumping out of your skin; you exchange phone numbers with the guy working as the skeleton.

Indeed, the "Below" stage-set is similar to a haunted house -- small confined spaces with low ceilings; greenish, murky lighting that makes people look like they've just thrown up; creepy, unidentifiable sounds incessantly bouncing off the walls; and little nooks and crannies. Every time someone opens a hatch or draws a curtain you're expecting something to jump out and go "boo!"

One of the executive producers of "Below" is Darren Aronofsky ("Requiem For a Dream"), who says in the production notes, that he started out with the desire to make a "really scary movie."

The film succeeds on this point -- for the first 45 minutes. The tension is strung tight as a drum skin, the story progresses fast and the unsolved mysteries pile up. Then "Below" simply runs out of tricks.

The other complaint is in the fleshing out of the characters, or, more precisely, the failure to do so adequately.

The story kicks off with a World War II U.S. submarine picking up survivors from a hospital ship that has been bombed by the Germans. One of them is English nurse Claire Paige (Olivia Williams), whose presence excites but also scares the crew -- apparently, a woman on board spells bad luck, of which the sub has already had plenty.

The old skipper, Capt. Winters, has just died under mysterious circumstances. He's been replaced by Lt. Brice (Bruce Greenwood). The oafish second-in-command, Lt. Loomis (Holt McCallany), seems to know what has happened but is determined not to talk about it. Then there's young Ensign Douglas O'Dell (Matthew Davis), who is kept out of the loop by his superiors and can only guess at what's going on. Everyone looks at each other suspiciously, but they all refuse to divulge their thoughts or reveal much about their personalities.

The characters seem to just wander aimlessly in the narrow corridors of the sub, growing more nervous by the frame. But then one begins to wonder about the scriptwriter's objective in having Claire on board -- you'd think an attractive woman among men who haven't "gone home in six months" would send some sparks flying. But apart from the initial lewd jokes everyone exchanges when they first see her, they leave her alone, and vice versa. I mean, there's not even one scene of her undressing or weeping or anything to remind us of her femininity or vulnerability, so why put her there in the first place?

Fact is, they're all too preoccupied with trying to track down the captain's ghost, especially the overly inquisitive Claire, who snoops in all the corners and dips into the captain's log, totally fascinated by what she finds written there. Which would have been fine in other circumstances, but you'd think she'd be more concerned that the sub is being stalked by a German battle ship, leaking oil, running out of oxygen and the fact that the body count is on the rise. You'd think that the question of a dead captain would be pushed to the back burner in favor of survival, but no -- from Lt. Brice down to the galley chef, everyone is obsessed with how he died, and why.

There's also a bunch of unexplainable events: The gramophone suddenly switches on and plays at full volume just when the Germans are scanning the radar for submarine sounds, and the sub's own control panels go out of whack, sending the sub back to the area where the captain died.

The most intriguing moment comes when one of the deck hands mutters: "You know what I think? I think we actually died back there with the captain, only none of us know it yet!" If this were the case, it would have added a whole new dimension to the story, giving everyone (including the characters) a fresh set of goosebumps, but it turns out the line was tossed in for fun and the idea is abandoned. And then, just like the sub, "Below" does a gradual, sinking nose dive to the bottom of the sea.

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