“It freakin’ flies!” The intrepid Charlie (Piper Perabo) makes this observation just as a really tall, really demonic creature soars through the air to assault her. She happens to be hanging to the side of a cave wall, which she’s been climbing trying to escape exactly this possibility, that the monster would come at her, hard, fast, and deadly. The flying is new, at least at this midwayish point in The Cave. Until now the creatures, though very toothy in a lifted-from-Alien kind of way, have been hard to see, skittering away through little crevasses, lurking as shadows in the underground waterways, or grabbing victims and disappearing in a rush of blood and human screaming. Now, as Charlie puts it, their mobility seems infinite. They freakin’ fly.
Though this moment possesses its own oddball grace, for the most part, The Cave is flatfooted. As its start, the by-the-numbers structure introduces a Romanian underground cave system infested by monsters. Not that you see the monsters. They remain obscured, until the predictable big reveal later. Instead, the mile-deep cave’s darkness keeps the creatures and the exploring crew obscured. This crew is called in by Dr. Nicolai (Marcel Iures), who’s found a buried abbey with mosaics that tell a story of demons and victims: just the sort of spot that needs excavation.
Enter dourly adventurous Jack (Cole Hauser, who is burdened with the film’s most awkward dialogue, as in, “If you ever want to see the sun again, you should follow me now,” or better, the PG-13-censored “Come on, you motherf…!”) and the phenomenally named Top Buchanan (Morris Chestnut). Longtime teammates (“How many missions have we been on together?” “Too many!”), they bring along a battery of expensive gear: cables and wetsuits, rebreathers and scooters (lights and motors that hasten descents into murky rivers). Good at climbing and diving, pushing forward when the way ahead seems impossibly blocked, they share mutual respect and utter trust, great-buddy-style.
Jack’s brother Tyler (Eddie Cibrian) takes an instant shine to Nicolai’s earnest-and-beautiful assistant Katherine (Lena Heady), who in turn sticks close to her impressively athletic cameraman Kim (Daniel Dae Kim). The rest of the team is variously set up for yucky demises: spunky, self-designated “best climber” Charlie, grumpy troublemaker Briggs (Rick Ravanello) and instantly identifiable dead-meat Strode (Kieran Darcy-Smith), all thrill to the challenges and argue among themselves over which brother to follow.
Katherine helpfully explains that the sunless ecosystem they encounter — which she and Nicolai hope they can claim and name — is the result of decades of evolutionary permutation. Among the first creatures they encounter, aside from an army of standard-issue scorpions, are gnarly parasites. When one of their number is dragged off by some unseen monster and the cave roof collapses, prohibiting their return the way they came, the team quickly surmises that they’re in trouble, and so they spend the rest of the film making mostly wrong decisions, so they can be picked off one by one. Essentially, they’re in a slasher movie with “scientifically” explained monsters (see also: Anaconda and the Alien franchise). If you’ve seen the trailer, you know they discover a link between the parasites and a set of previous human explorers (introduced during an opening prologue, “30 years ago”). As Katherine puts it, “They weren’t eaten by the creatures. They are the creatures.”
The fact that several team members start behaving strangely — eyes rolling, aggression showing — only confuses the question of who will “turn” first. Apparently, the vampire-like change involves paranoia (“I can’t help it if they don’t trust me,” says one likely victim) and creepy pallor (“He’s not the man we started with,” worries an associate). Fears of monstrous transformation are not new (for an especially smart version, see John Carpenter’s The Thing), but the added dimension of evolutionary adaptation is potentially intriguing. The trouble here is that the original characters are never compelling, so you don’t have much stake in their changes. Veins popping up or eyes turning pale, even the ability to leap from stalactite to cave wall, aren’t so frightening as they are stunty: you find yourself checking effects quality rather than fretting about someone’s lost soul.
Still, the anonymity in itself is not a kiss of death (even if you might argue that the lovely-if-unconvincing Piper Perabo does pose such a threat). Staging this formulaic story via self-consciously confounding visuals, The Cave is not unlike, say, Alien vs. Predator or the much revered Pitch Black, full of arty shadows, arty handheld camera, arty cuts. Former second and third unit director for the Matrix movies, first-time director Bruce Hunt largely obfuscates the narrative and characters, so it’s hard to tell who’s where at any given moment.
Space is a primary concern in a movie called The Cave. Constrained and unreadable, the space turns invaders into opportunistic killers (or maybe just rearrangers, a next step in body snatching). It’s a cunning evolutionary strategy, even kind of Borgian, in that all enemies are potential conscripts and contributors to the cause, whatever that cause may be. As the team dives in underground rivers or crawls through tunnels, climbs up walls, and plunges down waterfalls (even at on point skidding over ice), their travels offer no logical transitions. And so the space becomes as subjective and abstract as the characters’ seeming experiences. It’s like the whole movie has been shot on the Marines’ video headsets in Aliens, harrowing, but never very engaging.