Cave, The

Reviewed By Mel Valentin
Posted 08/28/05 01:17:06

"Solid, if derivative, popcorn entertainment for the 'PG-13' crowd."
3 stars (Just Average)

Despite a derivative storyline (via "Aliens" and "Pitch Black"), weak, almost non-existent characterizations, banal dialogue, undistinguished performances, and an unnecessary set-up-the-sequel epilogue likely to elicit laughs or groans from knowing audiences, "The Cave," a sci-fi/horror/action popcorn flick, still manages to provide a modicum of escapist entertainment for genre fans, due to a stripped down, claustrophobic, action-oriented script, above-average visuals, several top-notch set pieces filmed and edited with a minimum of overt stylistic tricks, and stunning underwater photography.

Set and filmed in Romania (partly for cost reasons and partly because Romania contains more than 12,000 documented caves, with the largest measuring 17 km long, many of them containing complex eco-systems), an extended prologue prefaces The Cave, centered on the accidental discovery of a vast underground cave system underneath a 13th-century Christian church by a group of ill-fated treasure hunters, followed by a 30-year jump in time, after which an archaeological dig uncovers the entrance to the church (and the cave). Led by Dr. Nicolai (Marcel Iures), a local expert, the archeological team discovers a sheer drop-off and an uncharted underground river. Via videophone, Nicolai calls on a group of veteran cave divers to help him explore the underground cave system.

A strong-jawed, fearless take-charge type, Jack McAllister (Cole Hauser) leads the exploration party, with an assist from “Top” Buchanan (Morris Chestnut, wasted in a superfluous role), Jack’s younger, “hotshot” brother, Tyler (Eddie Cibrian), and Katherine Jennings (Lena Headey), a biologist and Tyler’s underwritten romantic interest. Charlie (Piper Perabo, unconvincing when delivering the banal dialogue, but better when engaged in a tense, life or death struggle with an airborne predator), Briggs (Rick Ravanello), Alex Kim (Daniel Dae Kim, the token Asian, unlikely to survive The Cave’s running time), the team’s videographer, and Strode (Kieran Darcy-Smith) round out the cast of generic, disposable characters. Predictably, one of these characters inadvertently sets off an explosion that seals the entrance to the cave system (forcing the remaining characters to seek out an alternative exit just as the unseen, subterranean predators sharpen their claws for a new meal).

The underwritten secondary characters are given minimal dialogue and no establishing characteristics. As expected, the secondary characters are present in the film for one reason and one reason only, to function as fodder for the subterranean predators. Only Tyler, who may or may not become the lead character by film’s end, is given anything resembling a (single) character trait (his desire to push the limits of technology and his body), a trait that predictably (stifle yawn here) brings him into conflict with his more disciplined, older brother. Some characters, like "Top" Buchanan serve no function at all, with the exception of adding another person of color to character list. Others, such as Charlie or Katherine (their roles and attributes could have been integrated into one character, especially since two female characters are unlikely to survive the film's running time), are almost as superfluous.

The elaborate, impressive production design (most of the film, appropriate enough, takes place inside the glistening wet cave set filled with rivers, lakes, and, of course, sharp-edged stalactites) is credited to Pier Luisi Basile. Remarkably, the aquatic film crew spent nearly 4,000 hours obtaining underwater footage, with some of the more spectacular scenes filmed in the Yucatan, Mexico (an in-joke is made of the newly discovered cave system’s outshining the “real” cave systems found in the Yucatan). Credit for those scenes go to Wes Skiles, a documentary filmmaker turned underwater unit director and Jill Heinerth, an innovator in the field of cave diving who acted as a diving consultant. Heinerth trained the actors in using advanced underwater equipment, including re-breathers (high-tech breathing apparatus that recycles gases, allowing divers to spend up to 24 hours underwater on one tank of oxygen) and supervised the underwater stunt scenes.

For The Cave, noted creature designer, Patrick Tatopoulos (Underworld, Pitch Black, Godzilla, and Independence Day) created the subterranean, winged predators. Like bats, the winged predators uses eco-location to track and hunt their human prey. The predators, a combination of man-in-suit, animatronics, and where necessary, CGI, are best seen in brief, underlit glimpses. Up close, the predators are far less impressive and unlikely to create the intended audience reaction of fear and revulsion (and obviously influenced by H.R. Giger’s groundbreaking creature design for Alien and Tatopoulos’ own previous work).

The Cave marks Australian commercials director, Bruce Hunt’s, feature film debut. At his best, Hunt directs the action scenes cleanly, allowing the audience to follow the characters with a minimum of camera movement or editing. The film’s best-choreographed scene involves Charlie climbing a towering rock formation and a flying predator. Another set piece involves an enormous underground lake, flares, and two groups of survivors separated in distance and darkness. At other times, Hunt inexplicably succumbs to his previous career as a video director, employing quick cuts and blurry camera moves that make action scenes nearly impossible to follow. Some instances, however, are likely meant to retain The Cave’s restrictive “PG-13” rating, which mandates minimal blood or gore.

Ultimately, more discriminating audiences are unlikely to look past "The Cave’s" weak, undernourished script and appreciate "The Cave’s" set design, underwater photography, strong visuals, or the set pieces that center on climbing (and falling) or cave diving (and being pulled under by a strong current or an unseen predator).

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