You’re already thinking it so we’re just going to say it and get it out of the way: “The Cave” looks like a rip-off of “Alien,” because that’s what it is.
It’s also a paltry pastiche of “Pitch Black” and “The Abyss” (which were also rip-offs of “Alien”) and is available in a far more entertaining and enlightening fashion as a series of 3-D IMAX documentaries from James Cameron (who, coincidentally, directed the sequel to “Alien” as well as “The Abyss” — perhaps you’re noticing a theme).
But instead of outer space, first-time director Bruce Hunt and writers Michael Steinberg and Tegan West feign originality by taking us into inner space. The location of “The Cave” — with its inevitable mayhem and death — is a complex underground system miles below the Romanian forest, where all kinds of undiscovered species are sitting around, licking their chops and fantasizing about human flesh.
“Respect the cave,” veteran diver Buchanan (Morris Chestnut) warns his fellow team members, a group of good-looking rugged people who just happen to be scientists.
Of course that’s not going to happen. But the creatures who inhabit the cave are all too happy for the intrusion nonetheless.
One by one, the researchers are taken out by these vaguely reptilian, crudely rendered beings. They’re sorta eels and they’re sorta giant bats and they’re sorta cousins to those deadly velociraptors from “Jurassic Park.” They have sharp teeth and they make that high-pitched screechy sound as they zip through the caves with their long, whipping tails.
And as one character puts it before meeting a particularly gruesome demise, “They fly! They freakin’ fly!”
Yup — and they freakin’ swim, too, so hiding underwater isn’t necessarily safe, either.
But it’s hard for us to figure out exactly what these things are — or feel particularly frightened by them — because they’re photographed in such a jerky way. One would assume that’s intentional to create the sensation of chaos — or cover up how cheesy the effects are.
Visually, “The Cave” has dug itself into a hole. Because all the settings are necessarily dark and cramped and enclosed, it’s difficult to tell what’s happening much of the time, or to differentiate one place from another. You could probably mix up the reels and show them out of order — if you didn’t bother to stop and count the number of people still alive at various points in the story.
A sequence in which the team members go hurtling through roaring rapids and down a waterfall, for example, could have been thrilling. But the way it’s shot and edited instead evokes the sensation of being stuck inside a washing machine.
The one interesting twist is that the first person infected by one of these predators is the group’s leader, not some expendable shmoe. Jack (Cole Hauser) steadily mutates as the movie goes along, his eyes getting buggy, the pupils changing shape, his face getting clammy. His hearing becomes more acute, so he knows his fellow researchers are talking about him behind his back and taking sides, which makes him more paranoid.
Among them are Jack’s brother, Tyler (Eddie Cibrian, that hottie from “Third Watch”); experienced climber Charlie (Piper Perabo); Briggs (Rick Ravanello), the Guy Who Panics First; and beautiful British scientist Kathryn (Lena Headey, who’s also in “The Brothers Grimm” this week).
They all have to ask themselves: Do we follow this guy, just because he’s our leader? Or do we find our own way out of the cave because Jack is clearly losing it, and hopefully avoid bloody, shrieking death?
In space, no one can hear you scream. No one can hear you scream in “The Cave,” either, but then again, no one cares.