The Descent

Starring: Shauna Macdonald, Natalie Mendoza Directed by: Neil Marshall

I don’t like caves.  They are rough and craggily.  If you were climbing and you were to fall, you could easily break a bone or a head.  They are dark and cold.  Often times they have an unpleasant aroma.  When I was young I played “Spelunker” on Nintendo.  It was one of the worst games I have ever played.  I think this contributed to my unsubstantiated fear in caves.

I can’t imagine enjoying caving as a pastime.  Apparently it happens though.  And this is the backdrop for the film The Descent.

Six female friends decide to take a caving trip in the Appalachians.  There is some superficial background exposition about helping Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) get over the loss of her husband, who died the year before in a violent car wreck.  This is a plot point that resurfaces from time to time in the film, but isn’t really the meat and potatoes.

The girls descend in to the depths.  As they navigate a particularly dark, tight tunnel, it collapses behind them, effectively sealing off the entrance.  This doesn’t seem like a problem as there are other exits in this particular cave system.  That is, until headstrong Juno (Natalie Mendoza) admits she has taken them in to an unmapped system…you know, for the sake of discovery!

As the six friends trudge aimlessly around the cave hoping to discover an exit, the film becomes more and more claustrophobic.  There is a real feeling of despair.  Nobody on the outside who might notice their disappearance knows which cave system they are in.  It’s cold.  One of the girls falls and breaks a leg.  Add a bevy of half-humanoid cave-evolved mutants to the mix, and despair turns in to outright hysteria.

The Descent is somewhat indebted to films like Aliens and Pitch Black, borrowing the standard formula of picking off unwitting innocents by an unknown malevolent race.  But making small adjustments on an old recipe keeps it fresh.  Instead of aliens, differentially evolved humanoids; instead of an unknown planet, a cave setting; instead of a diversely gendered group of actors, an all female cast.  These tweaks make all the difference.

In addition to those changes in the formula, the film crew itself is flawless in execution.  The make-up/special effects group create a completely realistic creature, there is no reliance on CGI.  In particular, cinematographer Sam McCurdy and Neil Marshall do a masterful job in direction.  The caves themselves become characters; sometimes wide open inviting creature attacks, sometimes closing in on the heroes and, above all, always foreboding and dark but never murky.

Films like The Cave or The Relic or even The Descent 2, sadly enough, are the sort of pedestrian executions viewers are used to seeing for this sort of film.  The Descent rises above these because of the talent involved.

Written by Ryan Venson