You'd think it would be way easier to set a horror movie on a submarine than the results of Below seem to indicate.
Directed by David Twohy
Written by Lucas Sussman, Darren Aronofsky, and David Twohy
With Matthew Davis (Ens. Douglas Odell), Olivia Williams (Claire Page), Zach Galifianakis (Wally), Jason Flemyng (Stumbo), Scott Foley (Lt. (j.g.) Stephen Coors), Holt McCallany (Lt. Paul Loomis), and Bruce Greenwood (Lt. Brice)
Spoiler alert: moderate
As is so often the case in these retrospectives, completism drives us beyond the canon, and so do we arrive at Below, one of the movies Darren Aronofsky abandoned, perhaps because he was warned by a premonition. The story I've heard goes like this: in the afterglow of the critical feting Aronofsky received for Pi back in 1998, the fresh young thing was picked up by noted sexual predator sibling Bob Weinstein, who—as was the Weinsteins' wont at the time—dumped a barrel of cash on Aronofsky's head (fully ten times Pi's budget, just for the script!) to come up with something he could make for the two brothers, by way of Miramax and Dimension Films. Taking his assignment extremely seriously, Aronofsky and screenwriting partner Lucas Sussman delivered a ghost story set in World War II aboard an American submarine, and then, possibly because he didn't give a shit, Aronofsky stepped away from the project except as a producer, directing Requiem For a Dream instead.
And that put him at the very top of the indie director heap—which gave Aronofsky the clout to get a real budget for his first go at The Fountain, while in the meantime he tried and failed to make an adaptation of Frank Miller's Batman: Year One. And I think we're all full of conflicting emotions on that count: because on the one hand, there's almost no way on earth that the movie Year One eventually became, Batman Begins, was even close to as good as the one in Aronofsky's head, and it goes without saying that any Aronofsky superhero film would be a tantalizing thing; on the other hand, the Year One debacle proved that Aronofsky was never going to be a studio jobber, and for all that he's tried to be one (for did the exact same thing not happen when he was trying to get ahold of The Wolverine?), that life simply wasn't in Aronofsky's stars. Which is why Chris Nolan gets to be Chris Nolan, and Aronofsky still has to be Aronofsky, I guess. But plenty of worse things have happened in Hollywood, and the alternate timeline where we all had to grit our teeth while we read about Joss Whedon being appointed to "help" finish up Darren Aronofsky's Justice League is frankly easier to imagine than the world where Aronofsky routinely got Dunkirk budgets for Dunkirk projects. And regardless of our auteur's slight qualitative slide over the past decade, I still think we're all glad that we don't actually live in that first universe.
As for Below itself, that was handed off to David "Pitch Black" Twohy, apparently because when you think "the burgeoning arthouse superstar who directed Pi and Requiem For a Dream," your very next logical thought would be "the guy who made that Aliens knock-off that people kind-of liked." Well, Twohy, an accomplished screenwriter, for a certain value of accomplished (i.e., The Fugitive, and hardly anything else I could list that wouldn't seem like I was making fun of him), penned a new draft of Aronofsky and Sussman's script, presumably to add extra crassness; and, by dint of his empirically bigger box-office draw, he secured 40 million Weinsteinbucks' worth of funding, some fraction of which you even get to see on screen.
And so it was made, it was released, and it returned just a hair over $600,000.
No, that really is the right number of zeroes.
In fact, I'd never even heard of it until I started doing research for this retrospective, and Below is something of a perfect case study for a studio dumping a movie it had absolutely no faith in. Much of the problem evidently arose from Twohy's contract, which gave him the right to release the film with the R rating it got (and which, oddly enough, it doesn't even come close to fulfilling outside of a bit too much swearing). Bob Weinstein wanted to cut it down to a PG-13, but in the face of Twohy's contract, couldn't. In retaliation, he childishly tossed the movie into the marketplace with effectively zero support. The question I'd ask, were I a businessman, isn't so much whether this particular movie deserved better, as to how it even got to that point in the first place.
But, as a crappy film blogger, my job is to ask that first question, and the answer is "sort of." I mean, there are very few movies that deserve to make barely 1% of their production budget back, but once we go down that road, we have to start talking about the nature of desserts generally, and whether any commercial enterprise "deserves" anything, let alone customers. Let's be a little more precise, then, and simply say that Below sure as hell didn't earn any better than it ultimately got.
So! Let's hark back to 1943, when the Battle of the Atlantic was still raging, and apparently a few American submarines had been siphoned off from the campaign against Japanese commerce in the Pacific in order to hunt down the eight or nine surface vessels the Kriegsmarine was still fielding against the Allies. But perhaps it was easier for CinCPAC to compromise than you'd think, since he only had to let go of his fictional submarines, like Below's subject, the USS Tiger Shark (clearly named after the sub from either The Atomic Submarine or Submarine Command, but, yeah, probably Submarine Command). We arrive upon the Tiger Shark and her command crew—acting captain Lt. Brice, Lt. Loomis, Lt. (j.g.) Coors, and Ens. Odell—as they receive orders to effect the rescue of a lifeboat carrying the only three survivors of a sunken British hospital ship. Much to the crew's prurient fascination, one of these Britons is Claire Page. You know, a g-g-g-girl.
The rescue pans out, but complications arise when one of the "Brits" turns out to be a wounded German, and Brice winds up shooting him, not totally without justification, and confining the other two to quarters for their part in the deception, though in practice their confinement mostly relies upon the honor system. Still, it's enough to make Page mistrust the skipper—and when she learns that he's only the skipper now because the old one died in an "accident" just days earlier, she isn't inclined to trust him more—but as bad as this is, it's not nearly as bad as their repeated confrontations with the DKM destroyer (seriously?) chasing them, which have a terrible tendency to come in tandem with even more "accidents," all of which are very hard to explain without pointing to some kind of malign supernatural agency behind them. Soon enough, the boat's smashed nearly to pieces, and its dead hulk is set upon an unalterable course, right back to the site of a confrontation with a German submarine tender they sent to the bottom not long ago—which, perhaps coincidentally, was the place the Tiger Shark's old commander died.
It's basically The Tell-Tale Heart in the Thirty-Fathom Grave, then, and while that could have been a spoiler, one of the biggest structural mistakes Below ever makes is just how quickly it gives up its game; it leaves Bruce Greenwood, the sole actor here called upon to give any kind of performance beyond a stereotype (e.g., the Young Noble Ensign, the Blithely Dickheaded Executive Officer, the Fiery Woman In a Masculine Space Nevertheless Unbowed, etc.), completely unable to a fashion any actual character out of Lt. Brice, or even able to plausibly span the gap between what we think he is and what he actually is. (By the same token, though, it's worth mentioning that Holt McCallany's BDed XO is, in fact, pretty good.)
Everything else wrong with Below is mostly detail, but there's plenty of it, like the way that those British survivors seem totally superfluous to the plot, until you realize they're here to provide a human face to Below's twist ending (whereupon you shrug and concede, yes, you probably should've seen it coming). Of course, they also exist so a woman can get on board, a curious (and, as it turns out, spurious) addition to this WW2 submarine movie, Page quite possibly being included solely to justify the long game of pseudo-telephone which serves as a less-than-satisfactory introduction to the mostly-anonymous Tiger Shark crew, and which starts off, "Three Brits, and one's a woman!," becomes something like "Three Limeys, and one's a skirt!", and only doesn't end "The survivors are three natives of Great Britain, and one of them has a warm and tight vagina" because the actual dialogue is grosser. Vintage Twohy.
It's not really ever terrible (at least it certainly never becomes more terrible than this "bleeder" "gag"), but it is often incoherent and dull; it's just frightfully inconsistent. It has a tossed-off sub-Twilight Zone quality, naturally—there is nothing in the screenplay that even remotely suggests what Aronofsky might've once found interesting about it—but it is hard to fuck up a submarine movie, and if I were to guess at Aronofsky's initial inspiration, it probably had more to do with the visual and emotional possibilities that always inhere to the submarine thriller, all the cramped claustrophobia and nerve-jangling suspense that are pretty much baked right into the genre, no matter how low the implementation.
And Twohy gets a lot of that right, anyway, though his flair for the material is definitely intermittent. (The first flourish, after all, is that long tracking shot through the ship as we meet the crew and their vaguely-period-specific brand of misogyny, and it actually sort of makes me like this kind of long, geography-establishing tracking shot less, since Twohy never bothers with another one even when it would benefit the mood and help his storytelling, and so it comes off as the worst kind of showing off—you know, one minute and spent. You see it a lot from directors with recognizable skill but limited stamina: consider Life, for a more recent example.) But I said Twohy gets plenty right, and he does, especially a drawn-out, legitimately great depth charge sequence that does everything a submarine movie ought to do.
And it's flashes of brilliance like that one that make you wish Below could be brilliant, or even competent, all the time. Below has an awful tendency to reach beyond its grasp, particularly in almost every last one of its effects shots—it relies on a brand of eye-wateringly not-ready-for-prime-time CGI, which turns most of this film's action scenes into beta screenshots from a poorly-researched WW2 video game. (Seriously, when the natural audience for Below is people with an interest in military history, it really doesn't benefit from containing this many jarring anachronisms, especially an anachronism as outright weird as a WW2 destroyer using giant metal hooks to try to sink a submarine in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.)
Of course, the overarching problem with Below is that it's a horror movie, or at least wants to be, that never actually commits to being one. And so we have Graeme Revell and Tim Simonic's score, which is almost amusing in its misapplication of typical actioner tropes to what amounts to a Gothic shocker under the sea; and so, also, we have those crummy CGI phantoms and those belabored guilt-induced freakouts, none of which amount to a hill of beans. Below manages to get spooky maybe twice in its whole runtime (it is never scary, though this is clearly demanding too much), with a Benny Goodman record redeployed as creepy mood-setting, along with one honestly-cool shot of a mirror that doesn't do what a mirror should. But there's so much else going on, and with Twohy's grasp even upon the main drama proving so slippery, Below's indulgence in horror for its own sake comes up terribly short. So even when it's set inside a cramped metal tube, buried beneath the sea and literally full of poisonous air, this ghost story still hardly ever develops even the very littlest bit of atmosphere.