by Mel Valentin
Co-written by Darren Aronofsky ("Pi," "Requiem for a Dream") and directed by David Twohy ("The Arrival," "Pitch Black," "The Chronicles of Riddick"),"Below" crosses the World War II submarine genre with a supernatural horror/mystery thriller. While the central mystery proves easily decipherable by the twenty-minute mark, and thus a disappointment for viewers hoping for a few unexpected twists and turns of the screw before the final fadeout, proves to be a surprisingly gripping watch, due primarily to Twohy’s taut, deft direction of an otherwise flawed, occasionally derivative script. Twohy’s direction is aided by moody photography (thanks to cinematographer Ian Wilson) and solid, above-average performances, especially by Olivia Williams and Bruce Greenwood in pivotal roles.1943, the North Atlantic, German U-boats patrol the ocean, interdicting and sinking Allied vessels, both merchant and military. A naval plane comes across survivors in a life raft. Via radio transmission, a nearby U.S. submarine is ordered to assist the survivors. The submarine, led by Lt. Brice (Bruce Greenwood), makes its way to the coordinates, despite the reluctance expressed by Brice’s second-in-command, Lt. Loomis (Holt McCallany). Brice’s fellow officers include Lt. Coors (Scott Foley) and Ensign Odell (Matthew Davis), a young, raw officer on his first extended tour of the North Atlantic. Odell’s relative inexperience makes him an outsider among the officers, his opinion of minor importance.
"Creepy supernatural thriller hampered by predictable plot turns."
At the coordinates, the submarine finds three survivors of an apparent U-boat attack, Claire Page (Olivia Williams), a nurse, Kingsley (Dexter Fletcher), and a badly injured, apparently comatose man. As we soon learn, the men look suspiciously on the arrival and, worse, continuing presence of a woman aboard their submarine (women, apparently, are bad luck). They may be right. The crew begins to experience a series of unfortunate events, from repeated encounters with a German destroyer in hot pursuit (complicated by a turntable coming alive at the worse possible moment, playing Benny Goodman's “Sing, Sing, Sing (With a Swing),” to the more perplexing, including odd knocking on the hull that some crew members interpret as a message, to an oil leak that threatens to give their position away to the enemy, and finally, to a loss in steering that sends the submarine in a circle. Superficially, each event can be explained rationally (i.e., rising CO2 or hydrogen levels that affect cognition, mechanical failures, etc.), but something else seems to be behind the events, the supernatural.
Even as the crew begins to suspect that the submarine is, in fact, haunted by a vengeful ghost (or ghosts), Brice discovers that Claire has a secret of her own, and Claire, in turn, begins to piece together the clues that point to a dangerous, career-threatening secret shared by the officers, with the exception of Ensign Odell, who reluctantly becomes Claire’s ally. From there, the rising tension and conflict leads in one direction, toward a single explanation (with two possible meanings, however), and ultimately culminating in a (what else) life-or-death confrontation between opposing groups, with the sanity of at least one character an open question. A submarine haunted by a supernatural presence or unconscious guilt manifested in physical form (or both)? Below ultimately leaves the question unanswered, even if the weight of the evidence closely supports one of them.
As the preceding description suggests, story wise, Below’s owes a great deal to that classic 1960s television series produced (and often written by) Rod Serling, The Twilight Zone. In fact, the resemblance goes deeper than a similarity in subject matter or treatment. In its penultimate season, the network’s executives asked Serling to produce a one-hour (instead of half-hour) series. One episode, “The Thirty-Fathom Grave,” involves a haunted WWII submarine, with one petty officer, a survivor of the sunken submarine, wracked with guilt that manifests itself in eerie, inexplicable phenomena. Below’s inspiration may go further back in time, to another haunted submarine story penned by H.P. Lovecraft (there, however, the setting is WWI and the submarine is German, not American). Genre fans will also detect a tip of the hat to horror filmmaker John Carpenter, specifically in the Lt. Loomis character (the psychiatrist played by Donald Pleasance in Halloween is named Loomis).
Despite an easily solvable mystery that leaves the audience hoping for an unexpected twist in the final scenes (it never comes), the prolonged frustration in deciphering the contours of the conspiracy well ahead of the on screen characters, occasionally dodgy, sub-par digital effects, or, almost as egregiously, underdeveloped, sometimes indistinguishable secondary characters, Below manages to overcome its flaws due to David Twohy’s confident, stylish direction. Twohy’s grasp of the visual language of film is evident in almost every frame (via shot selection or composition), and in classical, editing-based scene construction (with the exception of an effective Steadicam shot used to follow the news of Claire’s arrival among the crew members).Twohy, who shares a writing credit on "Below," never allows a scene to go on too long, nor does he indulge in extraneous scenes that don’t advance the storyline (a problem often encountered when writers direct their own scripts). Twohy also deserves credit for ably directing the actors to give credible, grounded performances within tight, constraining spaces (that the submarine set is claustrophobic almost goes without saying). There is one exception, however, performance (and story) wise, Wallace/Weird Wally (Zach Galifianakis), a bedraggled, bearded conspiracy nut that also serves as the submarine’s radio operator. Why or how he came aboard the submarine (or why his commanding officer allowed him to sport a non-regulation beard or clothing) is left unanswered.
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originally posted: 09/24/05 00:01:25