The Descent

The Descent ★★★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

“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.”

As the wise king wrote, there is nothing new under the sun. But what about underground? The principle still applies. Discovery is a slippery thing, a boast laying bare the speaker’s ignorance and arrogance. As the Europeans discovered the New World, so might one discover a new patch of land beneath the surface. A place someone probably already called home, even if you can’t quite make them out in the dark.

No matter to Juno (Natalie Mendoza). She is inherently acquisitive, whether of her friend’s husband or of bragging rights over an ill-advised invasion of uncharted space. Was Juno there for Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) after the death of her family? No, for Juno attentiveness and empathy are not their own reward. Besides, it must be tough to look your friend in the face as she mourns a helpmate while you mourn a lost conquest.

Now Sarah’s coldness and lost affection present another obstacle to be vanquished. As she hallucinates an ever-lengthening hallway with her daughter at its ever-receding end, Sarah’s grief has robbed her of her zest for life. She doesn’t really want to go spelunking, but perhaps the adventure will distract her from her loss.

Juno, having mistaken Sarah’s acquiescence in shared activity for reconciliation, ups the ante by leading her crew to an unnamed cave at an undisclosed location. Shouldn’t Juno know that shared trauma does not forge stronger bonds? Sarah needs upheaval like her husband needed that hole in the head.

But Juno, assuming what she chooses not to see must not exist, drags her cohort into the abyss. They’ll romp in the scary cave and reemerge in the sunlight as sisters. And to Juno will go the credit. Her selfishness will not admit unpredictability. There will be no rockslides, no evolutionary offshoots. Only victory.

Nature, of course, knows of no expedition plan, filed or unfiled. It simply knows that it abhors hubris scarcely less than a vacuum. This isn’t a new cave system—it’s been there already in the ages before us. Plenty have been down here before—they, too, assumed that anything outside their field of vision and the pages of their books was unimportant. Perhaps Juno should have considered that there might be a reason this cave wasn’t on the maps.

The Descent, Neil Marshall’s paean to the virtues of sedentariness, remembers what its sextet of cave-divers seem not to mind: The dark is a very, very scary place. It’s primal—before mankind, before history, there was the dark, with no limit to the awful things it might hold. Few films have used lighting as effectively to create pools of terrifying certainty, where rockslides entrap and bone-filled canyons reside, and even more-terrifying pools of inky blackness, where something far worse must be happening. Before any crawlers enter the picture, we’re already on edge. Bats shoot out of crevices. Shrinking tunnels test the malleability of the human torso. Abandoned equipment suggests the practicality of abandoning all hope ye who have entered here. We don’t rate highly our adventurers’ chances of escaping the cave alive and intact.

And then come the crawlers. Milky white, muscled, fearsome creatures, like well-fed Gollums with personal trainers, humanoid but utterly foreign, blind but cunning. Like Juno, they cannot see, but they have turned their disability into an asset by sticking to their dimly lit home turf. They know they cannot see and compensate; Juno thinks she can see and flounders. Her machismo and short-sightedness leave Beth (Alex Reid) dead and can’t protect their other companions. Marshall’s use of gore is wickedly effective, with the sounds of bones crunching and the pools of coagulating blood creating a literally visceral experience. But even as the crawlers amass, the darkness remains Marshall’s best ally, inviting our imaginations to create better effects and more horrifying imagery than he ever could.

While Juno holds out hope that her audacity will win the day, Sarah faces hopelessness with acceptance, repaying brutality in kind. As Beth reminded her, the worst thing that could have happened to her already did. Her husband is gone and exposed as a philanderer. Her daughter is never to return. She’s alone. Many people have been down here before. Like them, she chooses to lose herself in a happier memory, despite the howling darkness encircling her. This place has got a name: Hell.

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