The murk is murky in more ways than one in “Below.” Described by director David Twohy as a “submarine noir,” this hokey thriller reps what one can only hope will be a one-of-a-kind hybrid between a World War II actioner and a ghost story outfitted with innumerable false-alarm shock cuts and shot with enough colored lights and filters to delight Baz Luhrmann. Teen and twentysomething guys partial to the genre elements, the “Pitch Black” helmer and the work of original screenwriter and co-producer Darren Aronofsky could give this Dimension release a solid launch, but B.O. dive will likely be precipitous thereafter.
Although it feels like an unholy, overly calculated concoction, the submarine-as-haunted-house premise theoretically held some potential in that the fear factor could be significantly augmented by the built-in elements of claustrophobia, inescapability, unseen dangers on the other side of the hull and the implicit metaphor of sub as giant metal coffin.
Unfortunately, Twohy busies himself primarily with anxiously staged incidents that are piled on so quickly that they betray a fear of boring the audience. But while the mystery surrounding the nature of the boat’s malediction remains intriguing enough to sustain mild interest, the picture refuses to offer much accompanying sustenance in the way of characterization, humor or plain old popcorn fun.
While on North Atlantic patrol in August 1943, the USS Tiger Shark, under acting commander Lt. Brice (Bruce Greenwood), picks up three survivors of a sunken hospital ship. Two — nurse Claire Paige (Olivia Williams) and seaman Kingsley (Dexter Fletcher) — are British, while the third is shot by Brice when his German identity is revealed.
Presence of a woman onboard is viewed apprehensively by most of the men, one of whom remarks that Claire is “the best-looking bad luck I ever saw.” In fact, things do quickly become perilous and strange shortly after she comes aboard, as a massive depth charge attack from a Nazi ship is followed by a record player repeatedly starting up on its own at inopportune moments and “voices” emanating from the dead.
But it turns out that the Tiger Shark was having a hard time even before the survivors were scooped out of the drink. Vessel’s original captain was accidentally killed under odd circumstances during the rescue mission; since then, Brice, while projecting a capable manner, has been displaying overcautiousness, as if biding his time, although he has the backing of his fellow lieutenant, Loomis (Holt McCallany).
Increasingly, a young ensign, O’Dell (Matt Davis), emerges as the crew’s contrarian, supported by Claire, who’s surprisingly outspoken, given her status as a guest onboard. Prompting the divisions are emergencies, crises and near-disasters that are so numerous and so rapidly accumulating that they play like a screenwriter’s checklist of things that could go wrong rather than as dramatic incidents that follow in some sort of plausible manner.
Among the notable setbacks are leaking oil that forces divers to go outside the sub to fix it; knocked-out periscopes and sonar; disagreement over whether to proceed to England or back to Connecticut; a broken rudder system that sends the sub into a drift; a preponderance of hydrogen in the air that has fateful consequences for most of the crew; and at least one of the principals tilting into insanity based upon revealed misdeeds.
To be sure, there is some cleverness and technical skill at work here in the sorting out of the story’s little puzzles as well as in formulating a different approach to shooting a submarine picture. In many ways, this is an anti-“Das Boot,” as it spurns gritty realism and the high and low tides of life in favor of more self-conscious stylization marked in Ian Wilson’s crisp lensing by sculpted lighting, a green grocer’s range of colors and a cabin that nearly resembles a gentlemen’s club salon in its spaciousness. But the strenuous seriousness the film applies to an idea that is finally silly at its core steadily increases the impression of overwrought artificiality as matters progress.
Thesps do a capable enough job playing characters one never warms up to. Having played a convincing JFK in “Thirteen Days,” Greenwood here more resembles Cliff Robertson portraying the future president in “PT 109.” Davis and McCallany have their macho switches turned on, while Williams, one of the rare femmes ever afforded a chance to appear in a submarine movie, conveys flinty resilience under duress.
Shot mostly in British studios, pic is well appointed technically and boasts good digital effects in the underwater action scenes.