I've decided I don't want to climb two miles underground in an unexplored cave system in the middle of nowhere. 2005's The Descent did a marvellous job of helping me reach this decision. It so successfully makes caving look so terrifying it doesn't even need to spend time really on the other things it spends time on. Which is not to say I think there's anything especially bad about the rest of the movie, just that it peaks around halfway through.
Oddly, whether or not anyone ends up dead becomes superfluous. We follow a group of beautiful young women as their leader, Juno (Natalie Mendoza), takes them without their knowledge to a new, unexplored cave system in the Appalachian Mountains. The other women think they're going to a thoroughly explored system which the youngest of them, Holly (Nora Jane Noone), dismisses as a tourist site.
Aside from pure thrill seeking, the adventure is also designed to pull Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) out of a gloom she's been in since her husband and five year old daughter died a year before. Most of the film is told from Sarah's point of view.
After Sarah's husband's brief appearance at the beginning the film, The Descent features for the remainder of its running time an entirely female cast. Which is rather refreshing. I don't think there's been anything like this since 1939's The Women (and, I assume, the remake of The Women) and it was basically a gimmick in that. There are hundreds of movies with entirely male casts but I've had a hard time finding any with an entirely female cast.
The film crew never visited an actual cave during the making of this film--everything was built in Pinewood Studios. The exteriors, meant to be the Appalachian Mountains, were all filmed in Scotland. I never perceived either of these facts as I watched the film which tells you something of how convincing these caves looked. A lot of it is the lighting which director Neil Marshall (who directed "Blackwater", arguably the best episode of Game of Thrones) allows in many shots to come exclusively from the flares, flashlights, and helmets on the women.
Though there are still plenty of shots with the typical backlighting I find so annoying.
There came a point, after they'd wormed their way single file through a space that looked thinner and longer than the average chimney, where I realised that it didn't matter if any of the women died in what was left of the film. It reached that plateau of tension.
But die some of them do, quite horribly, often at the hands of pale, blind, subterranean humanoids which, actually, may count as male cast members, though there was at least one female among them.
This was fun and not unwelcome. But it really wasn't necessary, especially since the creatures growl precisely like the Predator and I kept thinking of the Predator whenever I heard them. But more to the film's disadvantage is a silly soap opera plot about one of the women sleeping with another's husband. Whenever I was watching it play out between the characters I kept wondering why they, or we, the audience, were wasting our time with it. It really doesn't seem to serve any thematic purpose except in suggesting that the women were as capable of being as savage and amoral as the beasts. But dealing with the caves and the troglodytes seem like more than enough to establish these qualities in them, especially one woman who makes a horrible mistake. I think I was rooting for her more than the movie wanted me too--with just a little tweaking, it could've been a film noir.
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