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Exploring the mysteries of inner

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As the summer draws near its inevitable end, this year even the seasonal blockbusters exhibit a certain fatigue, as if Hollywood itself gradually succumbed to heat, humidity, and box office lethargy.

From the laborious dullness of Revenge of the Sith to the ersatz warfare of Stealth to the bourgeois melodrama of The War of the Worlds, most of the summer spectaculars have sputtered and crashed among crowds of disappointed viewers and reviewers. One of the last action features of the season, The Cave, appropriately buries its particular adventure far below the surface, sinking its story, characters, and ultimately, its meaning in the depths of the Earth.

The film involves an expedition by a team of scientists and divers investigating an enormous cave that lies beneath an ancient ruined abbey in the Carpathian Mountains of Romania.

Although the filmmakers claim that their story derives from actual discoveries of underground caverns, rivers, and various new flora and fauna in that region, it actually suggests some debt to all those film adaptations of Jules Verne's novel, A Voyage to the Center of the Earth, that always seemed to star Doug McClure. In Cave, however, the explorers find not some alien civilization nor even some chthonic creature out of ancient myth but a whole eco-system apparently dominated by horrible monsters.

After a relatively meaningless and generally irrelevant introduction, the movie constructs its simple story around the group of adventurers, experienced ocean divers, who join Romanian researchers in a daring journey into a huge cavern. Employing the latest technology, they descend more than a mile beneath the surface, then swim through an underground river another two miles to an island where they plan to establish a subterranean base camp and examine the landscape for a number of days.

Naturally as soon as the team achieves its first objective, everything, as every member of the audience expects, goes terribly wrong. A rock fall seals off their exit, which means they must find some other way out of the cave or die of starvation and thirst. Even worse, some frightening beasts appear and start viciously attacking the members of the crew, wounding the leader, Jack (Cole Hauser) and killing several others; the plot then propels the group through a series of struggles against the monsters, while they also desperately search for some way out.

When the scientists examine a body part from the menace, they discover that it combines characteristics of a number of animals --- reptiles, amphibians, apparently even mammals --- and apparently dwells at the top of the food chain in the cave's isolated eco-system. After their initial horror at becoming the monster's prey, the scientists learn that the beast somehow introduces its parasitic cells into its victims, in effect turning them into itself. The victims, they realize, also eventually become monsters themselves.

All of that no doubt sounds terrifically scary and exciting, just the thing for a late summer evening at the megaplex. Unfortunately, however, the unending series of attacks and escapes, the many scenes of rock climbing, underwater swimming, and universal anguish soon grow repetitive and wearisome. The essentially static situation, enlivened only by periodic battles with the monsters, also devolves into internal quarreling over which route to take and who is qualified to lead the team out, rather like a 1950s science fiction flick dealing with such matters as trust and the conflict between science and action.

The cast, hardly a stellar bunch of performers, swims and climbs and sweats and agonizes for the claustrophobic length of the film. Clothed in wet suits and diving masks, they tend to look alike too much of the time, which tends to underline their anonymity. The director constantly films them in tight closeups, which maintains the confusion and suggests a low budget approach to the action scenes --- all jumpy camera work, shouts, screams, dim lighting, and vague chaos.

The monster itself, mostly shown only in glimpses, combines the reptile with the insect, and clearly owes a good deal to the Alien movies and perhaps even The Creature From the Black Lagoon, but also flies, which makes it all the more formidable. In fact, both the scientists and the cave divers should have been better prepared for some airborne predator that infects its victims' blood: The Carpathians after all, is where Count Dracula hung out.

The Cave (PG-13), directed by Bruce Hunt, is playing at Canandaigua Theatres, Culver Ridge Cinemas, Greece Ridge 12, Henrietta 18, Tinseltown USA, Vintage Drive-In

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