I’m not sure what intelligent-design proponents would make of Neil Marshall’s horror spelunking picture The Descent,
in which slimy, bug-eyed humanoid creatures stalk a group of female
explorers whose internal strife poses almost as much of a combined
threat as these rampaging carnivores. Regardless, the movie is ample
proof that “different” and “bad” need not be mutually exclusive
descriptors. While Stateside distributor Lions Gate is aggressively
pumping this film — which has already enjoyed a successful run abroad —
as the late summer horror entry from “the studio that brought you Saw and Hostel,” they’d be wise to hope for a quick commercial cash-in and cash-out, lest aficionados recall primarily this sloppy, unengaging film during the studio’s next cycle on the genre merry-go-round.
Filmed in Scotland but set in North Carolina, The Descent
centers on a half dozen women who reunite, a year after the tragic
death of Sarah’s (Shauna Macdonald) husband and daughter, for a sort of
athletic retreat of good, old-fashioned unmapped cave exploring. When
their entranceway collapses and traps them all underground, the
controlling instincts of hotheaded daredevil Juno (Natalie Mendoza,
above, rocking the Michelle Rodriguez part) rub some of the ladies the wrong
way. Of course, that’s not all with which they have to grapple. As they
negotiate plunging gulfs and narrow passages, it comes to their
attention that a group of carnivorous creatures is on their trail.
Split up from one another, graphic attrition ensues.
The most interesting thing about the The Descent is the
manner in which old individual grudges, rancor and guilt warp the
women’s collective survival efforts. There is no gung-ho collective. In
fact, one heat-of-the-moment death (an accident or murder?) fuels
reprisal, and turns part of the action inwards. (Here I was reminded of
The Rock’s character of Sarge from Doom, for whom the siege
becomes a blanket excuse for unfettered vengeance.) But this is
ultimately a false emotional arc, as the women’s motivations seem
whimsical and unclear; Juno in particular fluctuates between
earnestness and disingenuousness, and Sarah’s catharsis — however
inventive in a piece like this — is not ours.
For a movie that attaches so much significance to inter-party
bickering and subtle power plays, the dialogue is also often
stultifyingly wrongheaded. “If there’s someone down here, maybe they
can help get us out!” exclaims a character at one point early on. Yes…
if there’s anyone else trapped hundreds of feet underground, they surely have been merely waiting for the right moment to step forward and lead others out to safety.
This is a slightly different point of comparison, but some folks blasted 1999’s The Blair Witch Project
— and decried it, a little too loudly, as not scary — because of the
jittery camerawork. I’d suggest, though, that while at times admittedly
disorienting, it certainly fit within the prescribed narrative confines
of the story. The Descent, on the other hand, is a dark and
stressed-out mess. The movie is effectively claustrophobic at times,
but wholly incidentally so. Marshall fails in consistently defining the
spatial relationships of his frames, none of the action cuts together
well and the final five to 10 minutes — most of what is being touted in
the trailer, not coincidentally — devolves into an orgy of eye-gouging,
skull-cracking, blood-spewing, flash-cut violence.
That finale notwithstanding, The Descent is actually fairly
restrained and mannered for much of its running time — almost too much
so. Heartening, this deep focus on character in such a genre piece.
Still, it doesn’t change the fact that none of these characters are
particularly sympathetic, leaving the audience to root for their
demise, if only they could distinguish the action. (Lions Gate, R, 99 mins.)