Below poster slice

After he became a star in the independent film world with ‘Pi’ and ‘Requiem for a Dream’ – but before my mom heard of him thanks to ‘Black Swan’ and ‘The Wrestler’ – Darren Aronofsky co-wrote ‘Below.’ Displaying his fascination with people trapped in nightmarish scenarios of their own making, Aronofsky spins a story about a submarine crew trapped underwater between their enemy on the surface and the horrors of the unknown… uh, below.

An American World War II submarine crew, already exhausted and low on supplies from their mission, makes a brief stop to rescue three survivors of a nearby shipwreck. Unfortunately, that moment is enough time for them to be noticed by a German ship, and with no way to defend herself, the sub is forced to submerge. Stuck underwater with a rapidly diminishing stock of important goods like “air,” the crew grows to distrust and fear their passengers and each other as they struggle to escape the dangerous waters.

Making things worse is the series of strange occurrences, like a record player that seemingly turns itself on while the crew tries to stay silent to avoid being found by the Germans. As the wait gets more and more unbearable, these phenomena get harder to ignore and even harder to explain. Is one of the castaways secretly a German spy? Is there a crewman on board who has snapped and started acting crazy? Or is there something more sinister afoot, like the possible presence of the sub’s former captain, who died under mysterious circumstances and who, according to some of the characters, might be haunting the remaining crew members?

‘Below’ aims for internal horror rather than external; it’s clear we’re supposed to see the characters descend into madness as the happenings on the boat become harder and harder to rationalize. Alas, the “madness” never goes anywhere near far enough to have much impact at all on the audience. In fact, at just about exactly the halfway point of the story, a group of the characters have a discussion about what’s happening to them. They talk about what might be causing everything, including a brief note about possible plot twists. And everything they say is more interesting than what ultimately happens. That’s right: The characters are better screenwriters than the screenwriters.

There’s not much in the film to strain the boundaries of credulity. It’s completely reasonable to believe that a group of exhausted soldiers in a submarine can go stir-crazy enough to hallucinate, abandon rationality, and turn violent. Unfortunately, the characters are universally stereotypical, and it’s easy to predict their fates based on their first few lines of dialogue. The low-budget cast (Olivia Williams and Dexter Fletcher were my most recognizable actors) does what it can with some extremely lame dialogue, and modern audiences will be pleased to see Zach Galifianakis doing some mild comedy relief.

The characters are obviously tacked on to the story. Nothing feels like it happens because of a character’s actions; things just sort of happen, and everyone just sort of reacts. The subplot about the ship’s former captain is awkwardly shoehorned in, and the script forces the characters to bring it up completely unbidden and seemingly without reason (“Hey, I know we’re busy trying to stay alive, but remember that dark and terrifying secret we’re keeping?”).  Plot elements that need explanation are mentioned once and discarded while the obvious parts of the setup are brought up repeatedly and with the subtlety of a brick to the skull.

The small, cramped space of a submarine does well to serve an obviously low special-effects budget. The story doesn’t often require much more than tricky camera work, and the few larger effects are serviceable, but not spectacular. The movie is filmed in a very straightforward style, but greater care (and more money) could have really made the submarine feel like a hellish prison instead of merely uncomfortable. There’s nothing at all to talk about regarding shock value – the horror effects are nonexistent because the horror itself is nonexistent.

I usually prefer my horror movies to be creepy, rather than violent or terrifying, but ‘Below’ just couldn’t muster enough of an atmosphere to unsettle anyone but the most suggestible horror fan. It’s a decent first draft that just happened to get filmed and released. I’d like to think that a bigger budget and more visionary director could have done some great things with the concept, and I’ll be first in line to buy a ticket if Aronofsky acquires the remake rights and directs it himself.