The 2002 film “below” was directed by David Two-way and starred Bruce greenwood and Olivia Williams amongst many others.
The film is set inside the suffocating confinement of a world war II U.S submarine, the tiger shark. What makes this film so claustrophobic is that the sub is beneath the surface of the Atlantic ocean for the majority of the film. Everything that could possibly go wrong in that situation does.
The film is of mixed genre. It is a classic war film brought to the 21st century with a thrilling supernatural twist.
The story follows the goings on aboard the Tiger shark after the commanding officer receives orders to rescue a sunken hospital ship. Three survivors are picked up, amongst them a women. During the rescue the tiger shark is intercepted by an enemy warship and it is revealed that one of the survivors is a German prisoner of war. It is brought to light that the previous captain of the ship died tragically. From that point things start to go tragically wrong for everybody aboard the submarine. Crew members start to die off one by one and strange unexplainable things start to happen. As the story progresses more is revealed about the reasons behind the strange happenings aboard the submarine.
As with most submarine films the sense of claustrophobia is already present in the enclosed set. The events in films such as this tend to be pretty predictable. Clichés such as the air running out and the sub being damaged and water flooding in were present. This particular film seemed more “enclosed” than your average submarine movie. In my opinion the cramped set was not the primary reason why the film was so claustrophobic. It was more than just being trapped inside a tin can so to speak. The fact that there were strange supernatural goings on that could not be escaped from added to the atmosphere.
There were events in the film that helped achieve this atmosphere. Scenes where characters were confined to certain rooms in an already confined space. In parts of the film the characters were blind. They could not see where the sub was going and there was even part of the film were characters had to swim in the dark to repair part of the submarine.
This combination of enclosed spaces ,blind darkness and superb audio effects set the atmosphere well such as the cries of whales from outside the ship. The frequent use of close-up viewpoints that were used also added to the sense of claustrophobia in the film. Other reviews of the film differ in opinion, for example
“The scenes are framed in nervous, headache-inducing close-ups”
The way in which aspects of world war II history were depicted in the film added to its realism. Costume design and character hairstyles were accurate fr the era. Perhaps more importantly, the social attitudes of the time were accurately portrayed by the actors.
An example of this is when the woman was brought aboard the ship it was seen as a “big deal”one of the characters went around the submarine telling all of his crew about it. He referred to her as a skirt and a bleeder, informal and offensive terms for women in the era. I think the terminology he used reflected the fact that he was probably a working class man. Other characters however, such as the commanding officer, had a different manner completely.
This was an accurate representation of the mix of social classes in the war because the veterans all came from different backgrounds.
“They called it the 'greatest generation'. The motley collection of men from all branches of society - farm boys from Dubuque mingling in with street kids and petty criminals from the five boroughs - that brought liberty to a world on the brink of tyranny “
Overall I would say that the ways in which the film was made to appear tight and enclosed may not necessarily have been appreciated by the audience perhaps it was a case of too much of a good thing. Between the middle and end of the film I thought the story dragged significantly and not much was happening, this however was compensated for by some excellent twists in the plot and a classic happy ending.