Let me be up-front. I am firmly of the opinion that it’s no longer possible to make an entertaining, let alone original, submarine movie. The last two years have been particularly bad, with the plotless U-571 and the moribund K-19: The Widowmaker wasting an ocean’s worth of budget on crummy scripts. The most recent Bond movie, like so many Bond movies before it, couldn’t resist the siren call of the submarine set. Crimson Tide and The Hunt for Red October were a lifetime ago.
So what made the producers of Below think that they could combine two tired genres — submarine and horror — into a sum better than its parts? We may never know, which is probably not such a bad thing. The only thing really necessary to know about Below is that it takes place on a haunted American sub whose captain is actually referred to at one point as "old man Winters." Unfortunately, Scooby and the gang fail to show up and rescue this unintentionally comic exercise from its own pathetic devices.
In direct competition with Below is Ghost Ship, another watery scare flick. The boat in question, much to my dismay, is not a sub but an ocean liner stranded in the Bering Sea that disappeared without a trace in 1962. Murphy (Gabriel Byrne) and his salty crew of vessel salvers are led to the hulking rust bucket by pilot Ferriman (Desmond Harrington), who’s a little too eager to share his discovery with people he doesn’t even know. But Murph shakes this off, and they board the ship dreaming of riches — and spend the rest of the film uncovering how and why it vanished four decades earlier.
Ghost Ship, though no masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination, is a vastly better film than Below, both in pacing and thrills. Its best moments are its opening ones, which feature an excellent scene of mass murder in which dozens of people are halved by a wire cable slicing through their stunned bodies. There’s a reprise of this ingenious death waltz later in the movie, which is enough to make me wish the remainder of the movie were half as inventive.
But this proves to be but a brief vacation from the dull fact of the movie’s very existence, which is that it is a submarine movie in cruise ship’s clothing. The worst crime of the sub-movie genre is that each of these recent films fails to generate sufficient fear by way of claustrophobia; ships, and the silent service in particular, are floating enclosed spaces, and suspense should be easy. Yet they fail to live up to low expectations time and again.
How long until Hollywood yells "down periscope!" for the final time?
Erin Podolsky writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].