When two films similar in plot emerge on the scene in the same year, who or what is to blame? Is it a matter of imitation or is it IdeaSpace- the notion that ideas float around in the ether of our collective consciousness, waiting to be plucked out? These types of questions arise when you notice a trend in filmmaking, such as the 2005-6 spate of spelunking-gone-awry flicks that hit screens, including The Descent, The Cavern, and The Cave. I’ve practically got an event week on my hands here!
The Cave has probably drawn the most comparisons to Neil Marshall’s The Descent- both feature people, caves, and the monsters who dwell in them- and while it’s fun to read posts on IMDb about which movie would win in a cage match (“I give The Descent a 7 and The Cave a 3.5!” “R U stoopid? The Descent wasn’t scary and The Cave had better monsters!”), the similarities end at the superficial.
A long time ago (30 years) in a galaxy far, far away (Romania), a group of surly…uh, people…find a church tucked away high up in the Carpathian Mountains. Their ultimate goal, however, is the enormous cavern underneath the church. They bust out some TNT and blow a hole in the floor; this, of course, leads to an amazing CGI avalanche / cave-in once they’ve descended underground. The fools! Oh, and by “amazing”, I mean “fake-looking”.
Suddenly we’re back in the present where another group is excavating the church ruins. When the flooded cave system below is discovered, it begs to be explored, which can only mean one thing- it’s time to call in the Elite Supergroup of Cave Diving Scientists! No, wait, not them- we want The hot, twentysomething Elite Supergroup of Cave Diving Scientists! The group, including Jack (Cole Hauser), Charlie (Piper Perabo), and Super Scientist Kathryn (Lena Headey), head into the depths to explore, take pictures, and…explore. This leads to such scintillating exclamations as this, from Charlie: “Did you get a shot of that? It’s sick, dude! Totally rockin’!” Thank god Piper Perabo was hidden behind a mask when she uttered the line- how could she possibly say that with a straight face?
It becomes apparent that the group is not alone in the caves when some large albino tadpole things swim by; when the tadpoles go on the attack, one plot device leads to another until the tunnel collapses and our Sexy Supergroup is trapped. Elder statesman Dr. Nicolai (Marcel Iures) suggests they wait for rescue as they face 90 miles of tunnels to emerge on the other side of the system. Jack reminds him that they are such an elite Squad of Super Sexy Cave Diving Scientists that no one in the world is qualified to rescue them- they can only rescue themselves. Onward they go, swimming towards their inexorable fate.
At this point, you might think “Uh, yeah, ok- The Descent much?”…you might also think that “inexorable fate” makes the movie sound all existential and shit. You might also think “Hey, didn’t Piper Perabo and Lena Headey fall in love and make out in that featherweight same-sex romantic comedy Imagine Me & You? Maybe they’ll make out here!” You’d be right to think any of those things, but allow me to clarify.
First, after the cave-in, this flick really departs in plot from The Descent, and not only because this group of cavers largely comprises muscly men (and because the characters are so thinly written, they tend to solve their problems by punching each other)- the monsters are quite different, which I'll touch on in a sec. Second, I could fill the rest of this review with Camus quotes and big words and this movie would still be little more than sci-fi fluff. Third, no, Piper Perabo and Lena Headey do not make out in The Cave, but if they did, the movie would be at least 23% better.
With the help of Lena Headey’s microscope, we come to learn a few things about the monsters dwelling underground and how they got there- the real monsters, you see, are teeny-tiny parasites that enter the bloodstream and transform the host organism into big, toothy, slimy, pasty, swimming, flying monsters- the monsters stalking our Sexy Scientists are, in fact, the very same surly people who discovered the cave 30 years ago. When a monster scratches Jack, Jack gets infected and very slowly transforms; this gives Cole Hauser a chance to wear funky contacts, glare, and sweat a lot throughout the remainder of the film.
The parasite-transforming-the-host angle isn’t a terrible idea, really, and it even seems somewhat realistic. The Cave, however, takes a good idea and blows it in a simple case of bad execution. I mentioned earlier that the characters are thinly written- that’s probably an understatement. They’re at once both extremely one-dimensional and implausible- they’re in their mid-20s, yet they’re the world’s most elite cave divers AND they're ex-Special Forces? Oh yeah, and they’re "scientists", too. While the men are simply pumped up testosterone cases who argue and punch each other, the women serve to 1) say things like “Totally rockin’!” (Charlie), or 2) get incessantly hit on (Kathryn). I mean, I’m not a Red Cross-certified CPR Artist or anything, but was it necessary to cut open Kathryn’s wet suit to give her mouth to mouth?
Speaking of wet suits, that reminds me. The Cave is chock full of elements that left me scratching my head in wonder. After they’re trapped by the ceiling collapse, Jack instructs the Sexy Supergroup to leave behind any items that aren’t essential to getting out of the cave alive; why, then, does each person change outfits at least twice? In fact, I counted no less than four getups on Piper Perabo on this expedition.
The cave system itself is…in a word, fucking ridiculous. There are sheer rock faces that are so high- thousands of feet- that when a character plunges off one it reminded me of that scene in Lord of the Rings, you know, the one where Gandalf fights that big monster and they fall for 3 weeks. At one point, the characters inexplicably find an icy, glacier-like passage…
…and LITERALLY right around the corner is a giant room I came to call The Flaming Knob Palace.
Of course, I’m not Tomb Raider or anything and so maybe such a thing is possible, who knows. It was ludicrous enough to make me laugh, though, and that’s probably not a good thing.
Actually, I laughed quite a bit during The Cave, so take that for what you will. There’s underwater knife-vs-monster fights, midair knife-vs-monster fights, there’s terrible dialogue, and an ending that simply cracked my shit up as Kathryn reveals the parasite eyes hiding behind her Foster Grants.
While, as I said, both The Cave and The Descent feature people, caves, and the monsters who dwell in them, that’s where the similarities end. The Cave is more action/sci-fi than horror, and as it’s PG-13 it’s a largely bloodless affair. While The Descent delves into psychological horror as well as monster horror, the only thing about The Cave that will make you think are the head-scratchers I posed above. If you’re looking for a bad popcorn monster movie, you’ve found it! I give it 4.5 out of 10 maybe next Piper Perabo and Lena Headey should team up in an antagonistic buddy-cop flick, where Piper Perabo plays a feisty, hardened NYPD detective who’s recently lost her partner in a shoot-out with a scum-sucking drug dealer and Lena Headey plays her new partner, an uptight British import. They don’t get along, of course, and Piper Perabo calls Lena Headey some name like “Buckingham” (for the Palace, natch) and Lena Headey will scold Piper Perabo for going against regulations and breaking the rules. Then the movie will kinda ripoff Ladykillers (starring Marilu Henner and Thomas Calabro) and the duo will have to investigate a series of murders at an exclusive Chippendales-style strip joint, that way there could be lots of musical numbers wherein screaming ladies wave dollar bills at breakdancing cowboys. Eventually the girls solve the crime and bag the perp, Lena Headey has learned something about New York bagels, Piper Perabo has learned something about clotted cream, and they’re not only partners but they’re also now besties. The film ends with a freeze-frame of a high-five and “Paradise City” by Guns-n-Roses starts blaring over the credits. Oh yeah, and they make outs.