Director – Maximilian Erlenwein – 2022 – Germany – Cert. 15 – 91m
Opening with an image of light shining through the waves on the surface of the sea – reminiscent of nothing quite so much as light similarly shining through the title lettering at the start of sci-fi horror shocker The Thing (John Carpenter, 1982) – this promises something dark, foreboding and threatening from the get go. The talkative Drew (Sophie Lowe) plans diving trips for herself and her more taciturn sister May (Louisa Krause).
On this occasion, the pair head toward a remote stretch of coastline in a rental car listening to the radio playing Only You by The Platters, a song which clearly means a lot to both of them judging by the enthusiastic way they sing along. (It would be nice to think that the radio station plays other tunes as well, but this is all we hear, presumably because the production could only afford the movie rights to the one song. Still, the tune recurs several times in the film, so no-one can accuse the filmmakers of not getting their money’s worth.)
Soon they’re at the beach, accessible via a path down from the cliff, where it immediately becomes apparent that although Drew has organised the trip, May is the diving nerd who ordered all the gear, including two face masks with headsets which allow the pair to talk to each other underwater. They set out from the jetty, and swim into an underwater cave system with narrow tunnels, pausing briefly at an underwater cove to surface and breathe, temporarily remove their masks, and breathe the air, where Drew asks May if she’s actually enjoying any of this (and is clearly worried that May isn’t).
They continue on through open deep water beside the underwater rock face, only for a rock fall to suddenly fill the water with falling stones and boulders: Drew at the rear gets herself to safety of the rock side, but only later when the cloudy water has cleared does she discover that her sister is gone. Searching, she manages to find her: May is much further down, her leg trapped by a large, fallen boulder. And about 20 minutes before her oxygen tank runs out.
Drew is the panicky type and so ill-prepared for emergencies that you start to wonder why anyone, let alone her sister, would actually want to go on a dive with her. By way of contrast, May is the calm type who, faced with an oxygen tank which gives her less than half an hour to live underwater, calmly, concisely and clearly tells Drew exactly what to do and how quickly she needs to do it.
Fast losing control of events, however, Drew screws up one thing after another, which suggests that it’s only a matter of time before May’s air runs out and she dies. Surfacing, Drew goes to the cleft in the rock face at the beach to find that the rock fall has collapsed the space in which they left stuff before diving. At various narrative junctures, she drops oxygen tanks either damaging their fittings on dry land or letting them sink out of sight underwater, or fails to check that various essential pieces of kit, such as valves on breathing apparatus, are actually working properly.
On top of this, with time running out for May, Drew, faced with the impossibility of retrieving two oxygen tanks from the back seat and the boot from the locked car without they key, runs a whole gamut of mostly unsuccessful attempts to gain access, from breaking a window to reach the tanks on the back seat through trying to open the boot using a hammer to force a diving knife to act as a key and, eventually, in a particularly ludicrous move, pushing the car off the cliff in a final attempt at opening the boot.
She also puts herself through a frantic race across the landscape to get to the sole house marked on the map of the area in the hope of getting help. In possibly the cleverest twist of the film, she finds something completely unexpected on arrival there.
The script exhibits a commendable knowledge of diving, so that, for example, May instructs Drew as to when and for how long she needs to stop and decompress to avoid decompression sickness (the bends), even though time is of the essence. A sequence towards the end involves nitrogen narcosis (raptures of the deep) when May starts to hallucinate images bordering on the divine. The underwater cinematography by Frank Griebe, which as far as I can tell in the absence of press information was shot for real, is efficient, highly effective, and looks great on a big screen. Since much of the film takes place underwater, that accounts for a great deal of screen time.
It’s much the same story as 127 Hours (Danny Boyle, 2010) except that instead of a lone man being trapped by a boulder in the middle of the desert and having to contend with heat and thirst, this has one of two women trapped by a boulder underwater where her oxygen supply will soon run out. For me, however, The Dive lacked the tautness and edge of the seat quality of 127 Hours. Or, for that matter, of caving thriller The Descent (Neill Marshall, 2005), the poster for which it resembles, shark cage dive thriller 47 Metres Down (Johannes Roberts, 2017), or Thai cave rescue dramas Thirteen Lives (Ron Howard, 2022) and Cave Rescue (Tom Waller, 2022).
Although The Dive is a two-hander, it also throws in flashbacks of the two women as young girls diving with their father, who at one point holds the head of one of them underwater. If you’re expecting that aspect to function as a gripping drama, don’t: it never achieves that level of focus.
The film overall would appear to have a lot going for it, yet somehow the overly talky and emotional main character stops it dead in its tracks as the script (or perhaps the actress’ improvising?) makes it difficult to sympathize with her character’s plight; most of the time, I wanted her to stop talking. To me, the whole felt far longer than its one and a half hours running time. I went in with high expectations – perhaps too high – and came out disappointed.