Below (2002) Movie Review

I am sometimes baffled by the choices film studios make, such as shelving the terrific “Salton Sea” but throwing everything including the kitchen sink to push “Final Destination 2”. And yet, sometimes I have to tip my hat to the studio suits because they’ve somehow managed to make the right decision, even if it doesn’t appear so at first. Take David Twohy’s “Below” as an example. The movie, about a submarine crew during World War II being haunted by ghostly spirits, is co-written by Twohy (“Pitch Black”) and Darren Aronofsky (“Pi”), and yet the film has all but been dumped into Straight-to-Video land.

How is this possible? Well for one “Below” is a boring, tedious, and laughable ghost story. Beyond that, it’s a murky and clich’d submarine movie. Of course the filmmakers of “Below” didn’t really intend for their movie to be a straight submarine film ala “Das Boots”. The movie opens as a military thriller, complete with the necessary sequences of the sub being hunted by submarine killers; the dropping of depth charges; the intense moments as crewmen wait for the charges to explode; and you know the rest. Without much hint as to what’s about to happen, the movie suddenly becomes a ghost story, with some vengeful spirit (supposedly) freaking out the sub’s crew, including its jittery C.O. played by Bruce Greenwood.

“Below” opens with the rescue of 3 survivors of a British hospital ship destroyed by German torpedoes. Among the survivors is Claire Paige (Olivia Williams), who is obviously a woman. Her presence among the all-male crew creates quite a stir, but before the crew can start hitting on and leering at her, they have enemy ships and ghosts to deal with. Before all is said and done, I was wishing the film was at least 20 minutes shorter and that I was watching something else.

First off, the ghost elements of “Below” are laughable. There is nothing scary, intense, or even remotely thrilling about this movie. Twohy’s attempt at showing mental breakdown by the crew as they suffer through one silly cheap scare after another had me wondering who exactly was Twohy’s target — for that matter, who exactly would be scared by these old tricks? Does banging on the sub’s metal hull and inserting silly “ghostly” whispers still count as scare tactics anymore? Apparently the creators of “Below” think so, because that’s pretty much everything that encompasses this particular “haunting.”

I’m not even sure what the addition of the lovely Ms. Olivia Williams (“Rushmore”) adds to the movie. Her presence is felt for about 5 minutes up and down the ship as crewmen excitedly relays her arrival to each other, but beyond that she becomes another face in the crowd. Worse, she’s a civilian, and it’s quite improbable that the sub’s officers would let her have free rein of a ship filled with horny men. Also, Williams’ Claire has a bad habit of demanding answers and snooping around places that she, as a civilian during wartime, shouldn’t be allowed. Worse still, she brings a secret onboard the sub that borders on treason.

There are few saving graces to “Below”, but one of them has to be the movie’s special effects. The submarine’s travels above and under the ocean are all done with spectacular CGI. There are a few scenes when a full-scale model of a sub is used, and that’s mostly when characters are standing on top of the deck. The rest are all creations of a computer graphics designer, and they’re nearly flawless creations at that. I believe they used a lot of the same techniques that James Cameron did in “Titanic.”

Another plus is comedian Zach Galifianakis, who co-stars as a superstitious crewman who at one point indulges in a little speculation with his fellow submariners. When ghostly things start occurring, one crewman posits that they (the crew) may in fact all be dead and just don’t know it. At this point, other crewmen chime in with their own “Twilight Zone”-esque premises. It’s good for a chuckle, but I’m not quite sure where these guys get this type of imagination. After all, they’re called “Twilight Zone”-esque premises only because they came after the “Twilight Zone” TV show, which these guys wouldn’t know anything about in 1943.

“Below” has some very good CGI and it’s always nice to see Olivia Williams onscreen, even if reason dictates that she shouldn’t be there. The woman is very fetching, as the Brits like to say, but unfortunately her character doesn’t have any real reason to exist except to ask questions that no ordinary submarine crew during wartime would indulge her in. Surprisingly, the best moments of the film are its faithful inclusion of submarine movie cliché.

As to the ghost story — well, if you aren’t able to guess the “twist”, then you haven’t been watching nearly enough “Twilight Zone” episodes yourself. And did I mention that the pacing and plotting is horrible? Or that the film is as scary as taking a nap? A nap, by the way, is what I nearly did halfway into the ghost part of the film.

David Twohy (director) / David Twohy, Lucas Sussman, Darren Aronofsky (screenplay)
CAST: Matthew Davis …. Ensign Douglas O’Dell
Bruce Greenwood …. Lt. Brice
Olivia Williams …. Claire Paige
Holt McCallany …. Lt. Loomis
Scott Foley …. Lt. Coors
Zach Galifianakis …. Wallace

Buy Below on DVD