I’m an English teacher, not fucking Tomb Raider.

It’s been a while since I’ve reviewed anything on this blog, although I did post my tiny review of Anne River Siddons’ Burnt Mountain over on Goodreads the other day. Today, though, I want to write over here and talk about movies.

The Descent, to be specific. Watched this night before last and mostly enjoyed it. It was only in the last third of the film that things went amiss for me.

So, The Descent is a British film that came out in 2005. Written and directed by Neil Marshall, it tells the tale of six women going on a spelunking adventure: Juno ((Natalie Mendoza), Sarah (Shauna Macdonald), Beth (Alex Reid), Sam (MyAnna Buring), Rebecca (Saskia Mulder), and Holly (Nora-Jane Noone).

descent1

The first five women are old friends reuniting after not having seen each other for a year (and after the death of Sarah’s husband and daughter in a car accident); Holly (the woman on the far left above) is Juno’s new friend (Lover? Perhaps. Although I misheard her when she said “I’m a sports fuck like Juno.” I thought she said “I’m sport-fucking Juno,” which amused me. But who knows.).

After a night of drunken revelry and reminiscing in a remote cabin in the Appalachians, Juno leads the group on a driving expedition to the cave they’re going to explore. As Juno leaves one of the vehicles, she throws the cave book in the glove compartment instead of bringing it with her: our first clue that she is perhaps not to be trusted. The group rappels into the cave–a beautiful scene–and begins their underground hike.

Little tiny spelunker in really big cave entrance. The last time you won't feel claustrophobic in this flick.

A little, tiny spelunker in the really big cave entrance. This is the last time you won’t feel claustrophobic in this flick.

Since the only way out is through, the women head deeper into the cave looking for the exit on the other side. But is there another exit? The audience, and the other women, soon find out that Juno wasn’t honest about where she was leading her friends. Instead of going to the caverns originally planned, she’s taken them to a cave system no one has explored before. And no one knows where they are.

Juno: It hasn’t got a name. It’s a new system. I wanted us all to discover it! No one’s ever been down here before.

Of course, everyone thinks Juno’s out of her goddamned mind, but there’s nothing to else to do but keep going. Things go to hell pretty quickly, as Juno’s little ego trip takes them places all of them would have been happy to miss.

Like I said, I mostly like The Descent. It’s definitely a good take on the let’s-all-go-to-the-country-and-get-eaten trope of horror tales. I really love the casting twist of everyone being women, and there’s not a stereotypical bimbo among them. They’re all capable women who know how to do shit, and I didn’t miss the sexual politics that invariably come with a mixed group (or, goddess forfend, a group with one token woman) in movies. If anyone knows of a horror film that includes a mixed group that isn’t horribly stereotypical, please comment. I’d love to know about it.

Anyway, Marshall does an excellent job making the viewer feel the caving experience, at least this viewer. I’m not normally a claustrophobic person, but the dark, narrow passageways that make up most of the film’s journey had me taking much more shallow breaths than I usually do. It actually felt like my body was trying to squeeze itself tighter, so I’d fit, too. Tension: Marshall knows how to do it. He’s knows how to push my buttons, anyway.

Never. Going. Caving. Ever.

But then we get to the third act.

*******INCOMING SPOILERS*******

The first two-thirds of The Descent is a creepy exploration of the characters’ psychology and skills. They’re capable women, leading one to believe that they might just be able to save themselves. Instead of continuing along that path, however, Marshall decides to throw monsters at them and the rest of the film turns into a not-nearly-as-interesting gorefest.

The monsters are humanoid. To me, they look like a cross between the fluke man from The X-Files and the ubervamps from Buffy.

Flukeman  +   ubervamp = descent monster

They’re blind, carnivorous, vicious creatures, and our protagonists are hard-pressed to deal with them. Fortunately, the cave people’s hearing is conveniently spotty and they have no sense of smell. Otherwise, they could have taken the women out in five minutes flat, and where’s the fun in that?

To combat the sketchy monsters, Juno and Sarah spontaneously develop slayer powers, so it would seem. Their fighting skills are a little hard to believe. Adrenaline can certainly give you strength and speed, but this is the first time the film gives any indication that Juno, in particular, is a weapons expert. It all looks cool, but it doesn’t fly for me.

And then there’s the Lembas Incident1. Juno kills two cave people and is then surprised when Beth approaches her and kills her, too, accidentally impaling her through the throat with her pickaxe. Juno freaks out and abandons her, something she’s known to do (and I would have liked to have had more time exploring that instead of sitting through the monster parade).

victim Descent_Juno_kills_Beth

Apparently, you can get stabbed in the throat like this, live for hours, and still talk once you’re found. Who knew?

The cave people grab Beth and drag her back to their lair, where they’ve also dragged Holly and where Sarah eventually finds her amid a pile of corpses in varying states of decomposition. She tells Sarah that Juno attacked her on purpose and can’t be trusted.

Because we needed that conflict added to the mix for some reason, didn’t we? Come on, Marshall.

See, I would have been perfectly content if we hadn’t heard from the miracle woman who should have died instantly with a blade through her spine and throat. Up until the cave people arrived, things had been relatively realistic. My disbelief was comfortably suspended, but this was completely unnecessary and stupid.

Juno deserves the axe Sarah hits her with later for getting her friends into this mess in the first place. The movie didn’t need to add Beth’s impossible remarks as justification.

*******Spoilers Done. Carry On.*******

But your mileage may vary, and you may be more tolerant of loose ends in your storytelling. So, check The Descent out. Even if the kind of things I talk about above bug you, you still might want to investigate The Descent. Like I said at the beginning of this review, it’s mostly pretty good.

I don’t think I’ll be seeing the sequel, though. That’s just pushing it.

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1. “Lembas Incident” is what I call a point in a film that doesn’t serve either the story or the plot and is only there to create unnecessary conflict and fake drama. Taken from the scene in The Return of the King where Gollum sets Sam and Frodo against each other with lembas crumbs. One of the many grumbly points of that film for me. So many grumbly points…

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2 thoughts on “I’m an English teacher, not fucking Tomb Raider.

  1. tedra

    I have to find this movie (because I’m willing to accept sudden crazy super powers in the interests of a Bechdel-test-passing horror movie).

  2. Netflix has it, and it’s definitely worth seeing. The first two-thirds of the film are pretty awesome. Let me know what you think.

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