The Descent is a title worthy enough to be used twice – once in the book written by Jeff Long (1999), and again in the film directed by Neil Marshall (2005). My first instinct was to conclude that the book came first, followed by the movie, but they are distinctly different beasts, and the director of the movie insists it was not based upon Mr. Long’s adventure novel. In this review, which I shall break into two parts, I will demonstrate this undeniable reality, and hopefully get you to spend 2 hours of your life, instead of the weeks it takes to plumb the novel.
The Descent: The Film
Directed by Neil Marshall, with an all-woman cast, this British-born hellfest is an action-driven gore-athon. The story is set in the underbelly of the Appalachian mountains, where the ladies have decided to retreat for their annual life-revitalizing adrenaline-adventure. Their mascot, Juno (Natalie Jackson Mendoza), has decided to take them spelunking into the depths, where chaos promptly ensues.
The film has a strange beginning. Apparently, the director was a bit uncertain how to create necessary characterization before plunging his thinly drawn cast into the abyss, but as they descend into hell, the breadth of the cast is quickly overshadowed by the film’s riveting suspense. As they descend deeper from the world, the distance between them grows, until the slow erosion collapses any supposed closeness between them. Trivial (and some not so trivial) matters begin to gnaw and eat away at their friendships, and the deeper the descent, the more estranged they become, until the question must be asked whether the monsters met them, or were brought by them.
The film has been called “claustrophobic,” and for those viewers uncomfortable with tight spaces, it is surprising how enclosed it can feel, even when viewed on a 14″ computer monitor. The director’s use of lighting, terrain, and camera angles recall such classic thrillers as Aliens, Jaws, and Psycho.
The cast does a passable job, buoyed especially by the better performances of Shauna MacDonald (Sarah) and Natalie Jackson Mendoza (Juno). The tension between these two unleashes slowly, enjoyably, even as a separate hell unfolds around them.
Although I’m not supposed to say it, I must say it: the ending is disappointing. It takes a bit to get into the film (again, the director’s strange setup), but once you are in, you are hooked, and you expect much more for your time than what is offered; HOWEVER, there is a little secret I discovered – the British version of the film is a few seconds longer, and those few seconds make a world of difference. If you can manage to obtain a UK version of the film, do so, if not, just be prepared.
The Descent: The Book
When I was 10, Nintendo released Castevania II: Simon’s Quest for the original NES. This was supposed to be the epitome of vampire-slaying gameplay, and I coerced my parents nonstop to buy me a copy. After a few months of persistent nagging, they finally caved (or bought it as a b-day present, I can’t remember); I still remember those first hours: “What a horrible night to have a curse.” (oh no!) Flame whip? (sweet!). But the initial joy faded quickly, as I realized this impressive looking game was filled with serious issues.
And believe me when I tell you, The Descent, written by Jeff Long, is filled with serious issues.
But first, I completely agree with the book’s cover praise, hailing it as “An Imaginative Tour De Force.” It is an imaginative tour de force, but it is certainly not a literary tour de force. Jeff Long has very good ideas, very poorly put together.
The first of these ideas was trying to make an excellent horror-adventure story into something else. In an online interview, he cites such classic stories as Dante’s Inferno, Milton’s Paradise Lost, and Virgil’s Aeneid as influences for his work. Because of these influences, I think he was wanting to write an epic adventure with religious depth, cultural insight, historical nuance, scientific fact, apocalyptic undertones, romantic inklings, and detective discoveries. And this is precisely the problem – wanting too much. One critic described Jeff Long’s writing style as, “an immense bulletin board.” It leaves you wishing he hadn’t descended quite so deeply into the side tunnels of his own world.
It had many good things going for it: characters I cared about, a well-developed fictional world, an interesting premise, and a gripping narrative. But a problem developed during the first few chapters: he kept introducing characters. And each new chapter felt like a different book (even written in a different genre!), until it became a chore to keep up with the scene changes, and trying to understand how each obtuse character fit within the overall scheme.
After just a few chapters, the book shattered into several vaguely related stories:
The adventure story – Helios corporation employs a group of scientists and military personnel to explore the farthest depths of the sub-planet…
The apocalyptic story – An end of the world in 2 chapters…
The detective story – A frustrating diversion back to the surface, catching up on the Beowulf Society’s failed attempts to locate Satan…
The religious allegory – An interesting (though underdeveloped) interplay between faith and science, faith and superstition, and faith and literature…
The romance story – The torturously slow relationship that develops between Ike and Ali…
The horror story – Any encounter with the hadals (this is really where the story should have stayed)
And the science fiction story (though I’m told that Mr. Long was adamant that his story was not science fiction) – The exploitation of the sub-planet by The Helios Corporation; the use of futuristic technology such as “Lucifer Rounds“; as well as an artificially created super-toxin called “Prion-9” (How is this not science fiction?)
Trying to be so much, it failed to be much of anything.
In the words of another critic, “an epic novel can be a true adventure to read, but a novel that thinks it’s an epic can be laborious.”
And then there is the ending..
This time, I don’t feel guilty spoiling it. In fact, I will go one step further.
By re-writing it.
Rather than the anti-climatic, “he circled her in his arms,” I have decided to develop the Branch-Satan-Ike element to its logical conclusion:
*WARNING* Spoiler Alert! (while reading this re-write, you may learn secrets about the story; on the other hand, this may be your last chance to avoid reading the book entirely..)
The Satan-possessed-Branch follows Ike and Ali out of the abyss, hellbent on revenge for the destruction of his people. He catches up with them before they break the surface. A terrible showdown occurs. Ike is forced to make a wrenching decision: does he fight against his former mentor and friend? or risk the woman he loves? A terrible battle ensues. Ike wrestles Branch-Satan to a precipice, Ali attempts to intervene, but Ike yells for her to get away, and then Branch-Satan pushes Ike off the edge; at the last moment, Ike grabs his enemy by the horn (yes, Branch-Satan would have horns), and pulls him over the edge. Ali rushes forward…only to find them impaled together on a stalagmite far below. She lingers next to the precipice for days, unable to admit Ike’s death; but the lure of sunlight from the surface calls for her to continue, and she hears Ike’s memory silently pressing her upward. As she emerges from the depths, she discovers that months of living underground has transfigured her into the same physically deformed person as Ike. And she is left to ponder this new world, without her lover, which causes her to question her faith in God. In a powerfully metaphorical (and climatic) way, she is left deciding between returning to the depths (Satan’s victory) or continuing on into the light (God’s victory). And the story ends.
Now all I have to do is forget Jeff Long’s ending and pretend like half the book never existed. On the other hand, if you are capable of suspending astronomic portions of belief (borderline schizophrenic levels), you may want to give the book a-go, and find out for yourself if it’s half as bad as I say.
Or, you could climb into a hole somewhere and imagine an equally interesting premise.
For those of you NES players that grew up traumatized trying to figure out how to make that damned tornado appear in Castevania II, check out Angry Nintendo Nerd’s review (the first time I saw this, I experienced a sensation akin to exorcism).