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The Dive: A clammy, cathartic scuba thriller

The Dive packs a lot of emotion and drama into its compressed running time

An underwater scene from the new thriller, The Dive

The Dive is in cinemas from 25 August

Wet wet wet: cinema in 2023 seems to have water on the brain, from Disney’s rather soggy remake of The Little Mermaid to silly shark chomp-fest Meg 2: The Trench. The heightened hoopla of Barbie made “beach” an entire aesthetic while Pixar’s Elemental took things even further by featuring water as one of its two leads (amusingly, his name was “Wade”). It’s not even over yet: those gimmicky 4DX seats that jerk around on hydraulics and spray misted water at you will be pushed to the limit by upcoming sub-aquatic superhero sequel Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom

It all feels like some sort of trickle-down effect from Avatar: The Way of Water, that luxurious undersea adventure that made the sun-drenched, gorgeously blue oceans of Pandora look like a soul-soothing paradise. James Cameron somehow spent over a decade and reportedly around £350 million on a message movie that said: come on in, the water’s lovely!

New scuba thriller The Dive – working with the tiniest fraction of an Avatar budget – might take a very
different tack, but it still packs a lot of emotion and drama into its compressed running time. 

Two sisters are on a slightly awkward road trip to a diving spot on a rugged but remote coastline: Drew (Sophie Lowe) seems to be the driving force behind the holiday, almost babbling in her enthusiasm; older sister May (Louisa Krause) is chillier, with an extremely professional approach to scuba. They park up their hire car on a cliff, hump gear down to the shore and push off a very rickety-looking metal jetty into the ocean. It will turn out to be an unlucky dip.

As any experienced diver will tell you, things get dark very quickly once you get more than a few metres below the surface. The sisters descend through a dramatic rock formation, carving beams of light through the murk with torches and communicating via a handy intercom system built into their helmets. 

“Right back into the womb!” enthuses Drew. But the bonhomie seems a little forced. These sisters are clearly struggling to relate. Perhaps isolating themselves from the rest of the world is a last-ditch attempt at family therapy. But before they can make any breakthroughs, a freak landslide brings a heap of rocks down on them like an asteroid shower. It is absolutely terrifying, perhaps because it taps into some deep atavistic nightmares of being buried alive and slowly suffocating.

Once the dust settles, it is May who is trapped beneath the rubble, forcing the anguished Drew to implement a solo rescue plan before her sister runs out of air. It becomes a frantic race against time, made all the more tense because Drew should ideally make a five-minute decompression stop every time she ascends to guard against nitrogen poisoning. But what happens when five minutes could be the difference between life and death? 

The tough decisions that have to be made while facing an unavoidable deadline give The Dive a clammy, nerve-shredding tension heightened by the claustrophobic setting and literally immersive sound design. If you watched Netflix’s recent free diving documentary The Deepest Breath, which also features dread-filled footage of lone swimmers being swallowed by darkness, you might feel like you have a handle on some of the practical and physical issues at play. But The Dive clearly outlines each problem facing the sisters. You know exactly what needs to be done, and by when, which makes it all the more harrowing when things do not go to plan.

It all initially feels very real, which means whenever Drew does manage to improvise a solution to some seemingly insurmountable problem, the sense of catharsis is palpable. But The Dive also drifts into more dream-like moments as both sisters start to unravel due to the combined effects of mortal stress, nitrogen narcosis and oxygen deprivation. It imbues what could have been a bare-bones survival thriller with some unexpected dimensionality, and seems to acknowledge the sense of spirituality that people experience when they are alone with their thoughts deep under water.

Thanks to some tightly controlled pacing, The Dive keeps its nervy tension levels high right up until the end. Will you emerge from the cinema feeling emotionally wrung out but with a new appreciation of life and the simple act of being able to breathe in and out? Probably. Will you sign up for scuba lessons? Definitely not. 

The Dive is in cinemas from 25 August

Graeme Virtue is a film and TV critic

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!

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