Above-par horror/drama/submarine movie that's better than the genre-pollination would suggest.
David Twohy is currently a man in demand. After the success a few years back of the acclaimed Pitch Black (the jury's still out as far as I'm concerned), he's currently in production of the oft-lauded and now green-lighted Riddick, a prequel to said film starring the vacant vacuum of verbosity that is Vin Diesel reprising his role as the titular (emphasis on 'tit') anti-hero. Presumably to act as a sanity buffer between the first film and this new instalment, Twohy saw fit to pick up Below, a low-key World War 2 submarine movie with a supernatural bent that absolutely does not run under Diesel power. It just so happens that it's a little gem.
The action centres around the crew of the USS Tiger Shark, an American submarine prowling the waters of the Atlantic on a hunt for the Hun. We learn that the boat is under the command of it's Second Officer, Lieutenant Brice (Bruce Greenwood), after a flashback account of events explains the Captain was killed in an accident whilst mopping up the survivors of a sunken German vessel the Tiger Shark had torpedoed. On their way home, the crew receive an order informing them to aid a friendly craft in distress. They barely have time to rescue the three British survivors before a German destroyer locates them and begins a deadly game of cat and mouse.
Under pressure, under attack, and rapidly running out of luck, the crew are understandably on edge. Matters take a turn for the mysterious when, attempting to maintain silence to avoid detection, a record player in one of the quarters decides to start banging out tunes of it's own accord. It also transpires that one of the survivors, a badly injured bloke being attended by medic Claire Paige (Olivia Williams), is actually a German. His insane rantings are soon cut short by Brice, who shoots him in a worryingly keen fashion, and it becomes evident that something is not quite right onboard the Tiger Shark. As the crew ponder the possibilities, more apparently ghostly events transpire, and soon information comes to light that the death of the boat's captain might not have been as accidental as it seems.
Below is an interesting beast indeed. Having bombarded us with inventive sci-fi eye candy in Pitch Black, Twohy shifts down several gears for what is an altogether more subtle and slow-burning picture. Part mystery, part drama, part thriller and part horror picture, Below manages to punch above it's weight in many aspects of it's production. There isn't a lot of character depth, and their interaction is never above average, but in terms of pacing and building of suspense it's a great example of what can be done on a relatively limited budget.
Oddly enough the scripting is partly accredited to one Darren Aronofsky, and it's certainly not what you'd expect from the master of indie oddity. Perhaps he's flexing his commercial muscles in preparation for Batman Year Zero? The dialogue is never brilliant, but never less than above average either. My only complaint is with the cast's conviction. Nobody really stands out as particularly dull, but many of the performances are a little flat, and I feel the picture would have benefited greatly from a little more, well, oomph. As is usual for a sub movie, cinematography is limited to the obvious constraints of the set, but this is easily on a par with something like K19, and there are enough tricky camera angles to add to the suspense in a 'Hitchcock stylee'.
Although never straining the nerves too much, Below maintains a beautiful pace from start to finish, and could teach many modern directors the virtue of holding back on the flash pyrotechnics in favour of the slow burn method. What effects there are present are mostly limited to external shots of the sub (very convincingly done) and a host of subtle 'ambient' effects designed to give you that "did I or didn't I just see that?" feeling. They serve the mood well, and the odd ghostly glimpse of a face in a mirror here and there is employed just liberally enough to be satisfying without also being excessive. Jan De Bont could certainly have benefited from taking a leaf out of Twohy's book when filming The Haunting.
Without giving anything away, Below builds to an almost understated yet satisfying conclusion that will satisfy those of us who don't always want to be spoon-fed effects and gross plot exposition. It's far from perfect, but as far as pot-boilers go it's a great twist on traditional genres and comes highly recommended. Dare I say it, I'm almost looking forward to what Twohy does with Riddick. And Diesel. Natch.
Disko sees fit to grant Below 4 out of 5 Happy Units.
Holt McCallany (Lt. Loomis)
Olivia Williams (Claire Paige)
Matthew Davis (Ensign Douglas O'Dell)