Last year, "Below" became the subject of much internet discussion. The film was an effort from highly regarded writer Darren Aronofsky (writer/director of "Requiem For a Dream") and director David Twohy (who had previous sci-fi success with "The Arrival" and "Pitch Black"). Buzz aside, the film still sat on the shelf for nearly a year, finally finding itself dumped in a handful of theaters (in most cases, not exactly optimal screens, either) and exiting after a couple of weeks. The film, which by the looks of it I'd guess cost $30m, made only $500,000.
Did the film deserve such treatment? Absoutely not. Is it exactly up to expectations, given the talent involved? Well, not quite. When the film starts to hit its peak in the middle, it's a taut and effective thriller that really knows how to best use silence. It's the beginning and the ending, really, that don't work - the opening takes too long to kick in, while the ending doesn't wrap up the tension or mystery that the middle had generated.
The film stars Bruce Greenwood ("13 Days") as Lt. Brice, now commander of the ship after an incident that nobody on the ship seems to be willing to discuss. There's also O'Dell (Matthew Davis, Legally Blonde), Loomis (Holt McCallany, Men of Honor, Three Kings), Coors (Scott Foley) and others. It's the middle of WWII; their submarine has taken some damage and is heading home. However, they stop to pick up the survivors of an English medical ship, one of which is Claire (Olivia Williams), who causes some tension by being the only woman on the boat.
Soon after, strange things start happening. A phonograph unexpectedly begins playing. One of the crew members sees a face along a wall in a compartment. The crew hears morse code on the hull that sounds like it spells out "BACK". Is there a ghost on board, or are the imaginations of the crew members playing games with them in the middle of this tense situation?
There are several good scenes here. Although obviously less costly than Jonathan Mostow's "U-571" a couple of years prior, Twohy manages one ridiculously nail-biting depth charge scene that is particularly intense. Although most of the film's scares are cliche "Boo!"s where people or objects pop out from around the corner, some of those cliches are still effective frights here, at least for the film's first half.
Still, there are elements of the film that come up as lackluster. Aronofsky's screenplay never really defines any of the characters, all of whom remain one-dimensional and almost interchangable. A couple of lengthy scenes that don't work stand out like sore thumbs, too. In one, word of a woman onboard travels throughout the ship and while it probably would have caused some notice, this much time doesn't need to be spent on it. In another, the ship's crew sits around and discusses what they think really happened to them. It seemed to be simply a way of saying - "well, this isn't what has happened" to the audience. The film's performances, aside from Greenwood's, do little to liven up fairly stereotypical characters.
Technically, the film is fine. The film's few special effects are not first-class, but they still remain convincing. The film's cinematography doesn't really take advantage of the claustrophobic nature of the sets very well, especially in comparison to Oliver Wood's remarkably effective cinematography on "U-571". Some concerns aside, Twohy has shown that he can make a moody and atmospheric thriller with "Pitch Black" and, when he hits the right notes here, he succeeds in creating that creepy atmosphere again here.
I may have had some issues with familiar aspects of "Below", but it's still a film worth seeing. While it may not have had a chance against "The Ring" when it opened last October, "Below" is certainly a far better film than "Ghost Ship", which was released around the same time. Unfortunately, few people knew of "Below"'s release, because it simply wasn't marketed (I was surprised to see a trailer on the DVD - I had no idea there were any ads even created. The film never had a website, either.). While not an entirely successful mixture of ghost story and submarine thriller, "Below" is a good movie that deserves a larger audience than it got.
VIDEO: "Below" is presented by Miramax in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. Although not entirely flawless, this is an awfully sweet presentation of the film that impressed me at times. Although a dark film aside from a few scenes, the transfer offered an exceptional amount of detail and clarity. Throughout the entire film, the picture appeared rock-solid, with no softness.
The only issue that appeared during the presentation was edge enhancement, which showed up in light amounts in a few scenes. No compression artifacts appeared and, aside from a couple of little specks, the print looked clean and clear. The film's color palette is, as one might expect, pretty subdued, given the setting. Still, colors appeared accurately rendered and clean. Black level remained solid throughout, while flesh tones appeared natural.
SOUND: "Below" offers a very enjoyable Dolby Digital 5.1 track. It will not be unseating the previous title holders ("U-571", "Das Boot") of the submarine soundtrack, but it does still offer a fine experience that is appropriately aggressive at all the right moments. Surrounds kick in for some creepy minor ambience and occasional louder sound effects, too. One criticism is that the film does use a few too many "Boo!" shock sounds at times, instead of using ambient sounds to build tension. The soundtrack certainly is powerful at times, although it doesn't quite have the range of some of the submarine films that have come before it. Dialogue remains clear and crisp throughout.
EXTRAS: Making up slightly for how it was released theatrically, "Below" does get somewhat of a Special Edition DVD release. The main supplement is a commentary from director David Twohy and what seems to be most (if not all) of the actors who played the crew members. The track gets off-track at times as the party atmosphere takes over, but between all of the actors and the director, we do get a great sense of what it was like on-set. Aside from the commentary, we get a few deleted scenes with commentary from director David Twohy, the film's trailer and a very in-depth (if too brief, at 12 minutes) featurette called "The Process".
Final Thoughts: "Below" was really quite an enjoyable thriller at times, but I still feel aspects of it could have been less familiar. Dimension has offered up a fine DVD edition, with excellent audio/video quality and a few very nice supplements. A definite recommendation for a rental.
The Film ***