| November 2, 2002

It seems likely that a story written by the man responsible for the murky psychological nightmares of Pi and Requiem for a Dream would deal with some mind games. The trick to Below is that it’s not just a psychological thriller, it’s also a ghost story, a murder mystery and a submarine suspenser. Unfortunately, while it is certainly a plus to have something more than the typical all-male claustrophobic cold-war paranoia flavoring a movie set on a submarine, Below neither delivers on its spooky supernatural premise nor its more conventional wartime mystery. Directed by David Twohy, a confident genre craftsman who’s enjoyable Pitch Black helped get Vin Diesel’s career moving, Below never finds it’s sea legs and ends up drifting along for an hour and a half thanks to a script that is too diluted to succeed on any level.
Below tells the story of a U.S. submarine navigating the war-tiome waters of the atlantic, doging Nazis above the surface and dealing with the rising tensions on their boat. When the movie opens, newly installed interim Captain Bruce Greenwood has just ordered his crew to rescue a few survivors from a recently torpedoed British hospital boat. Suddenly, compiounding the crew’s shaken confidence surrouding the mysterious death of the sub’s original captain and Greenwood’s subsequent elevation to the post, a few new passengers are on board, including a female nurse, played by Rushmore’s Olivia Williams.
Word quickly spreads around the sub that there’s a woman on board, and as the tension among the men rises, conflict after conflict comes to light. There’s a German warship trolling the waters above the sub causing the crew to dive deeper into the cold ocean; one of the wounded survivor’s they just rescued is a German POW; and just when the sub needs to run silent and deep, someone, or something, blasts a Glenn Miller record. Was it the woman? The German? A ghost? Therein lies the movie’s central gambit. Tension arises everywhere as the captain’s loyalties and motivations are called into question by several members of his crew. At the same time, Greenwood’s cold, secretive commander is slowly, along with everyone else, becoming more unnerved by odd occurrences on the ship that may or may not be the vengeful doings of the deceased captain.
Below wants to keep things ambiguous, and it certainly does, but that’s it’s problem. While the crew ponders ghostly possibilities, the sub becomes damaged and the oxygen starts to mingle with hydrogen and carbon monoxide, further blurring the line between what’s real and what is not. The problem is, the moments that are supposed to indicate potential supernatural activity are so subtle as to be meaningless. I understand not wanting to tip your hand, but in Below, all the cards suck. Pretty soon, the Greenwood’s version of the original captain’s death is called into question, crew members are going crazy from the fumes and Olivia Williams’ strident, annoying nurse is getting in everyone’s face. The result is a mishmash of connecting storylines that fail to be compelling, suspenseful or scary.
The film is well-crafted, and the performances are adequate, but the movie bogs down in a morass of uncertain intentions and what began as an atmospheric ghost story ends up as a dry, pointless exercise in bluffing.

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