After the disappointment of Ghost Ship, I was hesitant to watch another supernatural sea thriller, but I am glad I took the plunge with Below. Especially as the director is David Twohy, whose credits include ‘The Fugitive’ and ‘Pitch Black’.
Set in World War 2, Below follows the crew of American submarine, USS Tiger, who are patrolling the Pacific, when they receive orders to pick up survivors cast adrift from a sinking hospital ship. Shortly afterwards, mysterious things start happening on the submarine that cannot be explained. All this adds to the stress on the crew as they try to outmanoeuvre a German destroyer that is hell-bent on their destruction. Silence is imperative to their survival but something has other plans.
Now if you are expecting a straight up horror story, you might be a bit disappointed by Below. Though there are jump scares in the film, I would say it leans primarily towards the feel of a mystery thriller. This isn’t to say that it’s not a worthwhile story without these horror elements, in fact I found myself quite intrigued by the mystery of the former captain as it unfolds. You are also drawn into the hysteria and paranoia that manifests amongst the crew.
Where it really stands out for me is the acting – featuring the likes of Bruce Greenwood, Holt McCallany, Olivia Williams and many other excellent actors. Through their experiences not only do we get a great mystery, but we also get a realistic representation of the claustrophobia and tensions that arise when in the tight confines of a submarine. This is enhanced by cinematography that is aggressively cold and claustrophobic, with the latter portion of the film almost filmed in pitch black.
We are left in suspense for most of Below, not knowing if what the characters are seeing is a manifestation of their fears or something more sinister. With the war taking its toll on the submarine, they play a game of hide-and-seek with their real-world adversary, and must fight to stop the sub from either drowning or suffocating them. All the while an invisible threat of something lurks amongst the corridors. Claire, the ethically upstanding nurse is at the epicentre of it all, becoming our investigator, realizing there are many secrets hidden amongst the naval crew.
Brice as the Captain seems to be slowly losing it, as does the rest of the crew, not knowing if they should follow him or risk starting a mutiny. The character development is really where the strength lies in Below, as we get to know the crew, we realize there are dark secrets and tensions even before the sub starts to sink. These are further compounded by the many disasters that they have to face. Will any of them make it out alive? Are they going to self-destruct or will the ship do it for them?
Unfortunately, all these mysterious ongoings such as the handwriting in the log, the song that plays by itself, or the puzzling Morse code – are not explored enough to elevate Below to greater heights, feeling like a missed opportunity. It seems like a lot of it was placed haphazardly in the script and then forgotten about, leading to a muddling of the story. The build-up of the horror and mystery is eventually lost to the action scenes, which is a shame.
Throughout Below, we are given the impression of a convoluted story but it ends up being more simplistic than one might hope in the end. The tension just ends up stalling, never rising above the level of a jump scare. Two thirds of the film are compelling, but the pay-off is somewhat anti-climatic. The theories that the crew and guests have throughout the film might have been a more satisfying ending than the one we are given.