TSFO Manta Wing: Below (2002)

Below (2002)
Director: David Twohy 
TC4P Rating: 6/9
Species: giant oceanic manta ray (Manta birostris) 

It is only a sequence of around thirty seconds or so, but it is incredibly memorable. Four Navy divers on a stricken U.S. submarine on patrol in the North Atlantic in World War II take to the depths to effect some repairs that can only be accessed by swimming around the sub. Climbing out of the submersible in scuba gear that had barely been invented (and that the Navy apparently did not even use yet), the quartet stand on the deck with only their flashlights illuminating the darkness surrounding them. One diver plays with the mass of plankton floating around them, passing his hand in front of his light and marveling at the tiny creatures. Suddenly, a huge ghostly shadow, with a very recognizable underbelly, rises up behind them, and then one of the divers looks to his side and sees the gaping maw of what must seem to the character to be an alien creature swooping towards him. A flare is lighted, and the divers find themselves standing amongst a mass of plankton-crazed manta rays, six or seven at least. The rays glide gracefully around the divers for a few moments, and then are gone.

I am not aware of the proclivity of manta rays to inhabit the Northern Atlantic, as I have always heard they were tropical denizens, but let's set aside inconsistencies (along with the scuba thing) and concentrate on this fact: this is a marvelous scene. Somewhat gratuitous in its shock value, but the characters in Below are dealing with a ghost-haunted submarine, so something initially frightening but ultimately harmless (though haunting in its own right) was needed to punch up their dive effort. After watching this film for the first time yesterday, I went back and replayed this scene about a dozen times, partially so that I could get the details right, but also because, after almost two hours of well-posed but rather rote ghostly interference, death and mayhem, this scene was still the one lodged in my skull.

Since David Twohy, the creator of The Arrival and Pitch Black, was involved, I suppose we should count ourselves lucky that he didn't have the mantas wearing goggles to see in the darkness or had made mutated mantas with backwards-bending knees that attacked the sailors. I have read a rumor that co-writer Darren Aronofsky was originally going to direct this film, and undoubtedly it would have been made more interesting had he done so, but let's accept things as they are. The film is well-made and beautiful to look at, and I am glad the makers saw fit to include this Abyss-like moment with the graceful squadron of devil-fish in a ocean-set film entirely devoid of any other sea life.

More filmmakers should take the opportunity to show real creatures, even CGI-created ones, acting in a manner appropriate to their true nature, rather than making every animal a horrid threat to mankind. We don't need every shark appearance in a film to be a deadly one, and here, with an animal with a long-standing mythic reputation of seeming evil (being called "devil rays" based mainly on its devilish horns and huge size) publicly overwhelming the actual passive behavior of the species, there is the impulsive implication of a threat that is then staunched by immediate understanding on the part of the humans in the scene. Of course, peace between humans and sharks (and rays... or spiders... or snakes... or bears, etc.) means ZERO dollars at the box office, so I understand why it isn't done more. I just wish it were so.


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