Even though it's skulking into theaters toward the end of a summer surprisingly short on creature movies, "The Cave" feels familiar as it goes through the rote edicts of the scientific crew vs. beastie formula. Pic is getting a suitably quick sendoff theatrically, where it will gobble up some lackadaisical coin en route to decent video scares.

Even though it’s skulking into theaters toward the end of a summer surprisingly short on fearsome creature movies, “The Cave” feels stunningly familiar as it goes through the rote edicts of the scientific crew vs. toothy beastie formula. Refreshing strokes of science-fact in the early sections give way to action strictly from the Ridley Scott-James Cameron playbook, but without a powerful helmer behind the camera or a memorable cast in front. Pic is getting a suitably quick and quiet sendoff theatrically, where it will gobble up some lackadaisical coin en route to decent video scares.

Seven-minute prelude set in Romania’s Carpathian Mountains in the mid-’70s shows a diving team foolishly trying to explore a deep cave which had been capped (a la “The Exorcist: The Beginning”) by a church adorned with mosaics depicting knights being defeated by winged creatures.

Science steps in 30 years later with Dr. Nicolai (Marcel Iures) leading an expedition into the same caves, and hiring a crack crew of caver/divers led by Jack (Cole Hauser).

Tyro director and vet second unit director Bruce Hunt appears considerably more interested in the technology and gorgeous environments studied by these explorer-biologists than in the characters, which serves the film’s early mood as a science-fact adventure. For a while, “The Cave” actually feels like a dramatized version of an IMAX pic, except when certain routine character “complications” are inserted in Michael Steinberg and Tegan West’s screenplay — such as the testy sibling relations between Jack and brother Tyler (Eddie Cibrian).

Filling out the crew are Top (Morris Chestnut), Briggs (Rick Ravanello), Strode (Kieran Darcy-Smith),ace climber Charlie (Piper Perabo) and biologists Kathryn (Lena Headey ) and Kim (Daniel Dae Kim). They are ready for a plunge down into the enormous caverns under the Carpathians, convinced that they may be finding one of the world’s largest and least explored subterranean systems.

But, of course, those monsters depicted in the ancient mosaics turn out to be all too real, and pick off crew members one by one in true “Alien” tradition (with creature designer Patrick Tatopoulos unimaginatively borrowing from H.R. Giger’s model).

The creatures (there’s more than one) are able to feed off any host rather than consuming them whole. This is where pic borrows from “The Thing,” with intimations that Jack has become infected and may turn into one of the beasts.

Pic contains some surprises in this department, but the most consistent problem with “The Cave” is the cave itself, which makes tracking what’s going on virtually impossible. Only in a silly, pyrotechnical finale in a single vast cave is the viewer clear on the visual relationships between human victims and the creatures.

A last twist in a Mittel-Europa street cafe provides a little for the thesps to work with (as well as the rather unlikely suggestion of a sequel), but otherwise, these are thankless roles that must have been arduous to play.

Hauser escapes partly from his usual typecast bad guy role with this turn as a hero with a major health problem, while Headey is burdened with providing the regularly inserted scientific explanations.

Ross Emery’s widescreen lensing provides visual depth and sheen, aided by Wes Skiles’ superb underwater camerawork. Editor Brian Berdan ensures that things move at a sharp clip, though Johnny Klimek and Reinhold Heil’s score is a mixed bag of cool electronics and paltry “Jaws” borrowings.

The Cave

Production

A Sony Pictures Entertainment release of a Screen Gems, Lakeshore Entertainment, Cinerenta presentation of a Lakeshore Entertainment production in association with City Prods. and Cineblue. Produced by Richard Wright, Michael Ohoven, Tom Rosenberg, Gary Lucchesi, Andrew Mason. Executive producers, Marco Mehlitz, Neil Bluhm, Judd Malkin. Co-producers, Robert Bernacchi, James McQuaide. Directed by Bruce Hunt. Screenplay, Michael Steinberg, Tegan West.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color, Arri widescreen), Ross Emery; editor, Brian Berdan; music, Johnny Klimek, Reinhold Heil; production designer, Pier Luigi Basile; supervising art director, Corvin Cristian; art directors (Romania), Vlad Vieru, Peter Pound; set decorator, Malcolm Stone; costume designer, Wendy Partridge; makeup, Paul Pattison; sound (Dolby Digital), Mac Ruth; sound designer, Dane A. Davis; visual effects supervisors, James McQuaide, Gary Beach, Payam Shohadai; special effects supervisor, Nick Allder; visual effects, Luma Pictures; creature designer, Patrick Tatopoulos; stunt coordinator, Glenn Boswell; assistant director, Charles Rothman; second unit director, Garry Phillips; second unit camera, Phillips; underwater camera, Wes Skiles; casting, Tricia Wood, Deborah Aquila. Reviewed at Sony Studios screening room, Culver City, Aug. 23, 2005. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 97 MIN.

With

Jack - Cole Hauser Top Buchanan - Morris Chestnut Tyler - Eddie Cibrian Briggs - Rick Ravanello Dr. Nicolai - Marcel Iures Strode - Kieran Darcy-Smith Kim - Daniel Dae Kim Kathryn - Lena Headey Charlie - Piper Perabo
Creature performer: Brian Steele
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