“Anaconda” meets “Alien” in “The Cave,” another tale of an expedition into unchartered territory that ends with most members of the team meeting grisly fates at the hands (paws? claws? maws?) of very icky creatures. Cole Hauser, whose presence previously graced that magnificent vendetta drama “Paparazzi,” and Eddie Cibrian, late of “Third Watch,” star as Jack and Tyler, intrepid “cave divers” who lead their own team, along with a trio of scientists, into a huge system of water-filled caverns beneath the ruins of an ancient, isolated Romanian church. It turns out that, as in the prequels to “The Exorcist,” the church was situated to restrain an evil force underground, because it isn’t long before the spelunk-heads are trapped beneath the surface, where they encounter a hitherto unknown species that pursues them as they desperately try to find an escape route, gobbling up as many as possible along the way. (The things are like big, nattering bats that can also operate underwater–from a distance they rather look like Rodan, though close-up they resemble Big Momma from “Alien.”) There’s a further “Alien”-like twist in that when Jack is wounded by one of the monsters, he becomes host to a parasite that threatens to turn him into one of them. No chest-bursting follows, but Jack periodically writhes in pain as the parasite attacks his innards, and there are a couple of scenes in which he has a HAL-9000-like moment when his heightened senses allow him to discern what his colleagues are muttering about him (though in this case it’s acute hearing, rather than the ability to read lips, that’s involved).
Though there’s some attempt to make it appear a mite different from its many models, “The Cave” follows a sadly predictable trajectory. First there’s a half-hour of jargon-laden set-up, complete with some sibling rivalry between Jack and Tyler and plenty of macho posturing among the other members of their crew (Morris Chestnut’s Top Buchanan, Rick Ravanello’s Briggs, and even Piper Perabo’s bodacious Charlie–the obligatory blonde bombshell). Then there’s roughly an hour of chase, punctuated by plenty of “gotcha” moments involving the beasts, the divers and the scientists (who include Lena Headey, who also appears in this week’s other big-budget bomb “The Brothers Grimm,” and “Lost” star Daniel Dae Kim) and a few spectacular deaths, carefully doled out to cover the full sixty minutes. And finally we’re treated to a stirring finale, featuring lots of running, hair-breadth escapes and acts of heroic self-sacrifice, followed by the obligatory, sequel-threatening closing twist. It doesn’t help that the underground locale of the action means that everything is dark, murky and indistinct, and that first-time director Bruce Hunt is forced to shoot most everything in oppressive close-up. Nor is there much consolation in the persistently lame dialogue provided by Michael Steinberg and Tegan West, the score by Johnny Klimek and Reinhold Heil (which works overtime to try to pump up the adrenaline), or the acting, which is at best functional. Hauser smolders in his typical fashion, Chestnut poses as the token African-American strongman, Ravanello does the hot-head shtick, Headey is properly prim, and Perabo shows off her physical assets in several exhibitions of athletic prowess. Cibrian doesn’t do much more than look rugged and stalwart, but he gets extra points for twice houting a line that seems understandable, given the context: “This is bullshit!” A particular disappointment is the humorlessness of the picture–there’s no Jon Voight to ham it up with an indecipherable accent, or a Yaphet Kotto-Harry Dean Stanton duo to play the team jokers.
Before they all descend to their doom, Chestnut’s Top Buchanan speaks another bit of dialogue that deserves remembering, though in a contrary way. He warns all the expedition members to “respect the cave!” But that’s something that proves very difficult to do, because this latest exercise in claustrophobic mayhem is hole-y awful.