Centuries ago, a bunch of Romanians built a church over a sprawling cavern in the hopes of trapping the evil it contains. That seemed to work well enough until thirty years ago, when a group of thrill-seeking spelunkers blew up the floor, plummeted into the cave, and (cue eerie minor chord) never came out. Flash-forward to the present day when a pathway to this system has been uncovered. A team of professional cave divers is brought in to help a pair of scientists explore the subterrenean maze, and this being a horror movie called The Cave and all, a Red Shirt is quickly mauled by some sort of mutant creature. With limited supplies and no one expecting to hear from them for a couple of weeks as it is, the survivors grudgingly work together to find an exit, a sizeable task made even more difficult when their leader Jack (Cole Hauser) begins succumbing to a mysterious infection and starts acting irrationally.
The Cave ditches most of the exposition and meandering quasi-character development that usually drag down these sorts of movies, instead opting to cram in action sequence after action sequence. There's no sustained tension or dread, but The Cave serves up some decent jump scares, thanks in large part to the toothy creature designs by Patrick Tatopoulos (who, I'm sure not coincidentally, also designed Pitch Black's beasties). The camera doesn't linger on them long enough to get a good look, but those sudden glimpses of teeth, claws, and moist, inhuman flesh provide a few solid jolts. Actually, the camera doesn't linger on much of anything during the action sequences, and that frantic editing can make it borderline-impossible to tell what's going on. I'd have to wait until the barrage of quarter-second cuts had ended to figure out if the creatures' latest victim survived an attack, and one scene with the surviving characters barreling down some rapids was pretty much an indiscernable blur. That's intentional, I'm sure, but that doesn't make it any more pleasant to watch.
The cast does alright, as bland as their characters are. When the first one got knocked off underwater, I had no idea who had just died, and even a few minutes after the end credits rolled, I could only remember half of their names without cheating on the IMDb. Piper Perabo seems miscast as the brash mountain climber, especially since she's not much of a screamer. Her character's dialogue is more terrifying than any of the subterranean mutants: "Did you get a shot of those cave draperies? Sick, dude!" "It's totally rockin'!" "They freakin' fly!" Lots of exclamation points and trailing apostrophes. On the other hand, Perabo is the centerpiece of the movie's best sequence, suspended on a cave wall hundreds of feet above the ground as a winged creature moves in for the kill.
The Cave isn't as good as any of the numerous movies it shamelessly lifts from, but it has some nicely designed monsters, moves at a steady clip, sports a couple of really effective action sequences, features some cool photography, and has a few decent jolts. It's an okay popcorn action/horror flick and not a bad way to kill a Saturday night. Rent it, though.
Video: The 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation is fantastic, appearing razor-sharp and boasting an impressive amount of detail. The image holds up well in even the most dimly-lit sequences, and black levels are appropriately deep and inky. The movie has somewhat of a stylized palette, casting everything in a golden glow when the team arrives in Romania and as they stroll through a methane-filled chamber, although most of the movie naturally reflects the blues and grays of the cave. As expected from something just a few months out of theaters, there isn't any speckling or other visible wear. The Cave is a movie that benefits greatly from its visuals, especially the beautifully-shot underwater footage, and it's appreciated that it's translated so well to DVD.
A full-frame version is available separately, so make sure you don't accidentally grab the one with the gold banner up top.
Audio: Make any gripes you want about the movie itself, but the sound design of this 448Kbps Dolby Digital 5.1 track is phenomenal. (Well, if you discount how unrealistically clearly the divers are as they chat underwater.) The score, particularly in the early moments of the film, is gargantuan, filling every speaker and roaring from the subwoofer. The cave itself is represented well in a multichannel setup, with dripping water, echolocation, and assorted ambiance audible in all directions. Crisp, clear, and thunderous, The Cave's 5.1 soundtrack is an exceptional effort.
A French stereo surround dub has also been provided, along with both closed captions and English and French subtitles.
Supplements: The first of two audio commentaries pairs writers Michael Steinberg and Tegan West, who talk about how the story came together, some of the real-life events that inspired the cave-diving end of it, and the decade-long ordeal of getting their script produced. It's a really great commentary, and what I found most interesting were their notes about what changes were made from their script to the finished film -- it was written (and shot!) as a hard R, and perhaps that gorier cut will see the light of day eventually, along with an excised romance, a cost-prohibitive submerged church, a different look for the transforming Jack as well as an alternate way of presenting his descent into madness, and an opening sequence set during World War II, among others. As much as this movie was savaged critically, it sounds like a lot of its flaws stem from the fact that a bunch of scenes were gutted, as well the writers' repeated diplomatic deflection that film is a collaborative medium. (Around 50% of the dialogue was changed from the original script, and that includes the cringe-worthy "they freakin' fly!" line I quoted earlier.) They also talk about the difficulty in juggling a nimble B-movie pace with some character moments and trying to be scientifically accurate within the confines of a summer popcorn movie. Very honest, very informative...a great listen.
The other commentary features director Bruce Hunt, producer Andrew Mason, and special effects producer James McQuaide. It's a pleasant enough track, but honestly, I was kinda Caved out by this point and had a tough time paying attention, especially since there's quite a bit of overlap. It's interesting to hear a different perspective, though -- these guys have an alternate view about how Jack's transformation should be handled and justify it by saying that the rest of the team wouldn't follow someone who clearly wasn't human, and they also comment on the sexual nature of an attack that the writers weren't sure how to interpret. The three of them have a good sense of humor, and naturally, they're in more of a position to talk about the execution of the film than Steinberg and West, such as the thought process behind the lighting, training the actors to dive and climb, the tricks the used to seamlessly reuse a few different sets, what was technically possible to accomplish in the monster suits, and the limitations of what they could do with a bulky film camera.
There are also two featurettes, both provided in anamorphic widescreen. "Into the Cave" is the longer of the two, delving into the sport of cave diving and the experiences of the divers who contributed their talents to shooting the underwater sequences. "Designing Evolution" spends ten minutes with Patrick Tatopoulos and company on the movie's mutants, from concept to creature. It's a different take on the traditional effects featurette since it focuses more on the "why" than the "how".
A slew of trailers round out the extras. The DVD features a set of 16x9 animated menus and 28 chapter stops. The disc comes packaged in a keepcase with no insert (nothing related to the movie itself, at least) and a slick-looking slipcover.
Conclusion: The Cave is a decent B-flick, and the DVD looks great, sounds even better, and sports a decent set of extras. The current asking price of twenty bucks is more than I'd be willing to pay, but this fine-but-disposable action/horror movie is still worth a rental. Rent It.