Beware. Almost nothing in this film is what it seems to be. The Esa-ala caves in New Guinea, where this was supposedly filmed, don't actually exist. The breathtaking entrance to the caves, a yawning hole that just seems to pop up out of nowhere in the middle of a jungle, is the entrance to the Cave of the Swallows in Mexico. As for the rest of the cave system, it's all either CGI or crafted soundstage stuff based on the various caves the crews scouted. They couldn't use any of them, since it really isn't practical to film in a cave, even if you're James Cameron; so they recreated them on a set. They didn't film anything in New Guinea, actually. It was all Queensland, Australia, except for the Mexico stuff. (The Cave of the Swallows has an uncredited role.)

One thing that definitely is what it seems to be, though, is how claustrophobia-inducing it can be. I expected that, of course, but it covers pretty much all the major phobias, except the fear of public speaking. Whether you're afraid of the dark, the water, heights, large open spaces, or bad acting, there's something here to make you freak out, and it's in 3-D besides.

The characters -- such as they are -- are few, since you don't have a lot of random passersby two kilometers under the earth's surface. Frank (Richard Roxburgh, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) is a cave diver. Cave divers are a strange breed of daredevil who think that caving by itself, or scuba diving by itself, just isn't dangerous enough, so they have to combine the two to get a proper adrenaline rush going. His son, Josh (Rhys Wakefield), thinks the whole thing is silly, but gets dragged along on a regular basis, protesting annoyingly and occasionally trying to sneak off the whole way.

Ioan Gruffudd (Reed Richards from Fantastic Four: The Rise of the Silver Surfer), who is a Welshman, plays Carl, who is a rich American who bankrolls Frank's expeditions. Carl also fancies himself as a daredevil, and chatters a lot about climbing Everest and shows off with parachutes and things. He's brought his girlfriend, Victoria (Alice Parkinson) along, because he's rich and he can. He met her while climbing Everest. Presumably they were in the same climbing party, and not in two different groups that just happened to bump into each other on the northeast face.

Anyway, there are some other people, but they don't matter, except for retired cave diver George (Dan Wyllie), who gets the only funny lines in the script. Other lines are supposed to be funny, but I didn't think they worked. George gets called out of retirement in a hurry, since it's that or drown. By the way, whenever anyone tells you not to worry about something when you're cave diving, because you'll get plenty of notice before the bad thing happens, do not believe them. It's never too soon to start panicking.

The bad thing happens -- a monsoon, to be precise -- and well, all that water has to go somewhere, and oh, look, there's a great big hole in the ground over there! How convenient. Since the warning system has predictably failed, it's time for plan B. Plan B fails spectacularly, and there really isn't a plan C, but Frank's willing to make one up as they go, because again, it's that or drown.

Water whooshes in, batteries die, equipment gets lost, people die horribly and dramatically, and that's all there is to it. This is the opposite of the usual, since I think I just made it sound more exciting than it actually was. Because, bizarrely, it wasn't all that exciting. I was closer to being on the edge of my seat, wondering what would happen next, during The King's Speech. This is what's known in the trade as a Very Bad Sign in an action movie.

In short, it was as boring as that other James Cameron flick, less visually interesting -- it was cool, don't get me wrong, but overall not nearly as pretty -- and the acting was worse. They took what must have been a terribly exciting true story, and somehow made it bland. Looking back, I'm not sure why I didn't fall asleep. Two out of five is too generous, but I'll stick with that. Maybe next time James Cameron gets the urge to make a film like this, he can just follow a National Geographic team around for a while and film them in 3-D. It would probably be much less expensive.

The Cave of the Swallows, playing the Esa-ala caves.


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