It's nice to see the monsters from LORD OF THE RINGS can still get work. They are at the center and are the big reveal of THE DESCENT. And while I would like to say they are the star of the show, that's just not true. The real star of the show is the massive underground cavern where the film spends most of it's time. And I have plenty of opinions on that.
The film starts off as a little girl gleefully watches as her mother nearly gets creamed white water rafting. The mother doesn't but the kid does shortly thereafter, along the emotionless father. At this point, a young guy and his girlfriend sat next to me in the theatre and asked me if they missed anything. It's amusing to be able to answer, "Yeah, a six-year old brat just got a giant metal pole right through her melon." They looked disturbed by this information, as is the girl's onscreen mother, Sara (Shauna Macdonald - SPOOKS, or MI-5 as it's called in the States). She's the only survivor and as you can imagine, she's a bit battered emotionally.
A lot has been made about "sexy girls battling monsters in a cave" and so on. On the contrary, the film does not go to any lengths at all to increase the sex appeal of the cast.
One year later, she agrees to a weekend getaway (cue the horror film "uh-oh") exploring some underground caverns with her best friend Juno (Natalie Mendoza - CODE 46) and several of other extreme sports loving women. Now, here is where I should point out to everyone where many people may be misled by the premise of THE DESCENT. A lot has been made about "sexy girls battling monsters in a cave" and so on. On the contrary, the film does not go to any lengths at all to increase the sex appeal of the cast. While I am a great admirer of the fairer sex, it was a bit refreshing that for once, filmmakers avoided turning the movie into an underground COYOTE UGLY. Meaning no offense of course, most of the characters are quite average-looking. In other words, the film is more interested in character and wits than it is in cosmetic beauty. The rest you've heard is just PR.
A lot of time is spent here pretending to give the characters loads of depth, which works fine enough, and increasing the feelings of isolation and despair felt by Sarah. Sarah's pathos plays into the second, more visceral half of the film, to varying degrees. It also seems to have more bearing in the UK cut of the film than the American cut, which had minor alterations to the ending.
The group descends several miles down into a mysterious uncharted cavern. And here is my big gripe. It's not a gripe about the quality of the film so much as it is the characters.
You see, I've come to realize that the world is not merely filled with stupid people. No, that would be too simplistic. Rather, the world is filled with several different levels of stupid people. There are the normal stupid people, the ones who pass by life in their own little bubble of ignorance. There are the delusional stupid people, who believe anything they are told by media and government, and who probably think that the ghost of a little boy really does make a cameo in THREE MEN AND A BABY. And then there are the reckless, bat-shit crazy stupid people. Now, I'm not talking about people who go skydiving, or base jumping. Hell, I always wish I could have tried that myself. I'm talking about the people who decide to go out exploring life-threatening terrain, with no help, no preparation and minimal supplies. It requires people to be half stupid and half psychotic. Such are the dumbasses, one in particular, in THE DESCENT.
I believe that millions upon millions of years ago, we finally emerged out of the caves and explored the world at large. It is a special - and I do mean "special" - kind of person who decides to return to said caves. As the group squeezes through tunnels so thin, Mary-Kate Olsen would have to take a deep breath to get through, parts of the cavern system begin to collapse behind them.
The caverns are beautiful, but they are also untamed. So, the group has no idea where they are heading. If they come to a clear passageway, all the better, because they are just as likely to encounter a dead end, or a two hundred foot drop. The caverns are definitely the star of the show, as I said earlier, and they are cause for the most nail-biting moments of the film. The monsters are just gravy.
Oh yes, the monsters. As I joked in the first sentence of this review, they do look like they came out of the LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy. From a distance, you'd think it was Andy Serkis himself, crawling around. Up close, they look like those goblin/orc things, but this time naked as the Lord made them and sporting skin as pale as... well, people who spend too much time indoors watching LORD OF THE RINGS I imagine. They also gurgle like something out of Sigourney Weaver's nightmares and scream like an Aphex Twin video.
My kidding aside, the monsters are actually pretty creepy in this film and I hope American audiences give them a chance. At this point, I wonder if many of my fellow countrymen will wonder if THE DESCENT is nothing more than a rip-off of last year's film, THE CAVE. In case you are, let me tell you right now, it isn't. Although most of THE DESCENT takes place in the Appalachian Mountains, it is a British-financed film that actually opened in the U.K. a month in advance of THE CAVE's U.S. berth. In finding a U.S. audience, that will be THE DESCENT's biggest hurdle to overcome - that even though it was first and is in fact a better film, audiences may feel like they've seen some of it before.
The film is filled with adrenalin-draining moments and really should be seen in a theatre to get the full effect. For most of the film, the audience has that worrisome feeling in the pit of their stomach and that tingling at the back of their spine. Those looking for gore will be happy to know THE DESCENT delivers, but it isn't the main focus as it was in say, Alexandre Aja's HILLS HAVE EYES remake.
The flaws the film has are few and only worth a brief mention. Probably the biggest is that even at 99 minutes, THE DESCENT goes on a bit too long and could have probably stood to have another ten minutes cut from the running time. A good area for some trimming were a few minor character points brought up early on that don't seem to go anywhere.
THE DESCENT is a good, solid horror film that is primarily interested in scares. In it's serious, downbeat approach, it is in many ways the opposite of Marshall's gloriously fun DOG SOLDIERS. It won't completely cure the movie-watching blues, but it's a damn fine start. Oh yeah, and for the cave dwellers out there - you're still bat-shit crazy.