August 6, 2006

The Descent

A small group of adventure-seeking women venture into a cave system and get more of an experience than they planned for. This is the basic premise of the new film The Descent (trailer).

The premise brought to mind another recent film now in DVD release, The Cave. I recall renting The Cave from a Redbox a few weeks ago, taking it home, and falling asleep in front of it. Horror movies are rarely original and The Cave seemed to me to be a watered down version of “Pitch Black” with a different (completely predictable) twist at the end.

The Descent has been compared to Alien, but I think The Thing is a more apt comparison.

Choosing an all-female cast makes it necessary to have halfway-decent and varied female characters, and this film does a good job of that. By the time that the cave-diving begins, we already know quite a bit about the three most central female characters. Sarah has been through a horrible life-shattering loss. Beth is the supportive friend who was there for her in the aftermath. Juno has set up the expedition to help Sarah get back to her previous hobby of extreme activities and put her past behind her, but she harbors some regret for not being more supportive when Sarah needed her. Once the expedition begins and starts to go bad, personal weaknesses and conflicts bubble to the surface.

Whereas the cinematography of The Cave was expansive, The Descent is claustrophobic, which mirrors Sarah’s psyche. She’s trapped in her head by the memories of her past. When Sarah is wedged into a passageway and Beth has to help her through, it’s an obvious metaphor, and what follows is a result of that crisis. Touches like this make The Descent a much more interesting and thoughtful movie than I’m used to in recent horror, but will that be lost on the gore-seeking horror moviegoer? I don’t think so; I think many horror moviegoers are looking for different experiences rather than the same ones over and over again.

Once the film takes a gruesome turn, it remains there. The film makes ample use of opportunities to shock, with plenty of blood to go around. But where many films just treat the characters like fodder for the monsters, The Descent remembers that it has characters, and drives toward an emotional resolution.

Will anyone survive the cave system and make it to the outside world? Will those who are trapped escape? I wasn’t even wondering about this, as the situation seemed, to me, to be completely hopeless. That’s part of why I compared the movie to <The Thing which also featured a pretty insurmountable problem. Often in life you simply can’t escape. Sometimes survival is your only option.

If you see this film and like it, but thought it held back I recommend the similarly crafted but much more shocking High Tension (2003). I had meant to write a review for High Tension but never got around to it. As you can see from the review, I’d rather post a rambling discussion than a focused movie review. However, I think there are some interesting comparisons here. The Thing for the character interplay and sense of futility, High Tension for gritty feel and psychological aspects, and The Cave for a (contrasting) movie that went for flash instead of giving you something the audience could connect with.

Posted by James at August 6, 2006 11:49 AM
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Seems there are a lot of spelunking movies out lately. In addition to "Descent" (which I have not seen, but will now), and "The Cave" (which I unfortunately have seen), there is also "The Cavern". My opinion of the latter being that it is only marginally better than "The Cave".

Posted by: Chuck S. at August 6, 2006 1:18 PM

I don't think The Descent will wow you, but it is a much better movie than The Cave.

Posted by: James at August 6, 2006 1:57 PM

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