The Descent refers to a cave-diving expedition undertaken by six women into the bowels of the earth, yet there's also a parallel plummet into a deep abyss. A nightmare of primal chaos.
Plotwise, in a prologue, Juno (Natalie Mendoza), Sarah (Shauna MacDonald) and Beth (Alex Reid) go white water rafting in Scotland. There are hints at a shared tension, but nothing specific until Sarah's husband, Paul, and daughter, Jessica, pick her up and, in the midst of a bland conversation, get in a road accident on their way back to the hotel. Paul and Jessica are killed, but Sarah survives.
One year later, Juno, Sarah, Beth, Sam (Manna Buring) and Rebecca (Saskia Mulder) are reunited at a rustic Appalachian cabin in North Carolina. Holly (Nora-Jane Noone), Juno's new friend, arrives and the green-eyed monster of jealousy rears its ugly head as we get a vague hint at the vague dynamics of a number of unspecified relationships. They proceed to get very drunk and pledge to "Love each day."
The next morning they go caving. Having not been climbing for long, the group goes into shock when Sarah is almost killed as a cave collapses behind them. After much argument, Juno admits that she has deliberately taken them into an unknown cave instead of the well mapped-out cave system they had carefully planned for. Juno, with her massive yet clearly insecure ego locked into a notion of discovering a brand-new cave system that can be named after her narcissistic self, clearly disavows the unctuous rhetoric she mouths about plurality and the love of sisterhood. Additionally, Juno has manipulated the only other climbers who already know about their expedition into thinking they are climbing elsewhere, so there can be no rescue. Trapped, with no way out, the group then discover an ancient cave painting and leftover equipment from a previous climber.
When Holly falls and breaks her leg, they are forced to carry her along. Then, as a claustrophobic, angry Sarah wanders off, otherwise absorbed it takes a while before she sees a pale, humanoid creature drinking at a pool. As a shocked Sarah reacts in panic it scampers off into the darkness. In the melée that follows Holly's throat is cut and Juno defends her from the crawlers. Amidst the chaos and confusion, as matters take on a sort of battlefield reality, Juno accidentally stabs Beth. From then on, everything descends into savagery and a plot I refuse to give away.
This may all sound sort of trite. It's all been done before, you might say, but the essence of the movie is in its total physicality. Often shot from close-up in the utter darkness, each character's body is pushed, pulled, beaten, battered, and stretched to a violent breaking point. Smothering tight canals and cavernous potholes, sometimes illuminated by the light from pink flares, make it seem like a voyage through the rings of hell. Strained beyond the limits of their muscles and bones, these 'fit' women are confronted by the limits of their bodies, friendships, and belief systems.
A quick word about these humanoid creatures the women encounter in the caves. They are, as described by the film's director Neil Marshall, cavemen who've evolved after living underground for thousands of years. They've lost their eyesight, but own acute climbing, hearing and sensatory powers to be able to function in a pitch-black world. By creating a family of ruthless, blind carnivores to go to war with his female athletes, Marshall enriches what otherwise would have been simply a woman-in-danger monster movie.
Happily The Descent doesn't waste much time on the usual Hollywood-style obligatory schematic elements. We learn enough about these characters from their reaction to their predicament. Indeed, the dark, claustrophobic world under the surface is a character unto itself. The film's writer-director Neil Marshall has taken his excellent Dog Soldiers--the story of a platoon of British weekend warrior territorials out on maneuvers in the Scottish Highlands when they accidentally/on purpose stumble into a group of night hunter werewolves--and simply stepped it up a notch. Marshall and McCurdy love darkness. These caves have a terrifying emptiness, a vacuum full of both imagined and real dangers.
This film is a definite must-see. Buy a big box of popcorn, people. Keep your jaws busy!