One briny-deep thriller that does not have sharks, other aquatic predators or even human ones, German director Max Erlenwein’s English-language “The Dive” manages to work up considerable tension nonetheless. It’s closer in gist to “127 Hours” than most other underwater suspense films, hinging on a similar type of physical entrapment — only the survivable timespan here is of course much reduced, because the imperiled characters have a limited oxygen supply.
While perhaps not quite striking enough in style or incident to leave a lasting impression, this very well-crafted remake of co-writer Joachim Heden’s 2020 Norwegian feature “Breaking Surface” should particularly impress with its underwater photography on the big screen. Most viewers, however, are likely to catch it via home formats, as RLJE Films releases the film day-and-date to digital and theater screens on Aug. 25.
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May (Louisa Krause) and younger sister Drew (Sophie Lowe) are tangibly at an awkward point in their relationship, conversation strained during the drive to an annual sibling adventure. May seems to have signed on this time more out of duty than enthusiasm; we glean she’s incommunicado with their mother, whom she didn’t know Drew is again now living with. Their shared pasts and separate current lives are left largely blank here, yet It’s clear the siblings have drifted apart, albeit without acknowledging it.
They have at least one remaining thing in common: Diving has been a family pursuit since childhood, as seen in flashbacks. Ergo they’re en route to a remote seaside setting (the film was shot largely in/off Malta) where they will hike down a steep trail to the beach at the bottom of a cliff. Even if she does not seem to particularly want to be here, May is the one with the high-tech equipment and general knowhow, the safety-minded “adult in the room,” while Drew still runs on a bubbly youthful enthusiasm she’s dismayed her sister no longer shares.
Aiming to explore some caves deep below the surface, they descend, affording the film spectacular early imagery as the protagonists traverse narrow crevasses and such, their surroundings all luminous blue and green. Things go well enough until there’s a disturbance around the 15-minute mark, at which point rocks suddenly begin raining down from above. Drew manages to mostly avoid a pummeling, but when the avalanche ceases, searches in vain for May, who’s not responding on their intercom system. Once found much further down, she is conscious but stuck — a boulder has pinned her, and will not be moved.
The good news: Drew can access more air tanks, plus cell phones and miscellaneous tools, back on the beach. The bad news: It turns out the same rockslide which trapped May below also rendered those things inaccessible above. With multiple trips up and down exhausting as well as dangerous (in terms of rushed-decompression hazards), Drew has few options, and a very limited window of opportunity, before her sister’s time runs out.
Most films of this ilk stir viewer second-guessing of a “Don’t do that, do the other thing!” type, marveling — admittedly from the safe haven of our sofa or theater seats — how characters can be so dumb. Erlenwein and Heden’s screenplay, however, avoids that by making both protagonists competent under duress, even if May has by far the greater expertise as well as the calmer mindset. While at first we (and she) fear that the more excitable Drew will blow everything by panicking, little sis proves resourceful, and in believable ways. Her hectic on-land travails include waging war on their rental car (which proves very difficult to access without keys), and a sojourn to a nearby local church where, alas, help is not found.
Both heroines physically and mentally degenerate fast, fighting to stay functional under the circumstances. If “The Dive’s” final stretch feels a bit less urgent than what precedes it, one appreciates that the filmmakers did not pile on the usual melodramatic gotchas, hewing to a relatively realistic course of events.
Krause (of Starz series “The Girlfriend Experience”) and Aussie import Lowe (“Beautiful Kate,” “Medieval”) contribute strong work. They transcend the limitations of the script, which chooses — perhaps wisely — not to give us much in the way of backstory beyond a few fragmentary, not-very-revealing flashbacks.
Taking on a major logistical challenge for his third feature after the land-lubbing likes of 2009’s “Gravity” and “Stereo” five years later, Erlenwein takes an unfussy approach to this compact story that is tense without ever seeming hyperbolic. The assembly is expert on all levels, its outstanding contributions being visual, with Frank Griebe credited as DP Jan Hinrich Hoffmann and Eric Borjeson as underwater cinematographers. While no one would want to be in May and Drew’s predicament, it is inarguably a pleasure to look at.
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