Empire of the Wolves & The Descent

Yesterday, having little better to do, I killed half a day by going to the cinema to watch back-to-back films.

The first was L’ Empire des loups, or by its English title, Empire of the Wolves. It was not rated highly in any of the reviews, but it was often said that if you liked Brotherhood of the Wolf then you would enjoy this other French, wolf-based film. I really liked Brotherhood of the Wolf, and think it is deserving of its 7.1/10 ranking on IMDB. I thought the film combined atmosphere, a gripping story, and martial arts action superbly and so I was looking forward to Empire of the Wolves serving up much of the same.

I was disappointed. The film starts well, but seems to lose its direction pretty quickly. It starts to wander, as if it cannot decide what kind of film it wants to be: sci-fi, thriller, political drama. Some of the camerawork and atmosphere is very good, as is to be expected from a French film. The scenes filmed in the Paris slums as the rain teems down are very good indeed, but sadly not good enough to rescue the film from leaving the viewer rather irritated by the constant meandering of the plot.

The second film I saw was The Descent which scored 7.6/10 on the IMDB ratings, and was described as being made in the same mold as Dog Soldiers (they share the same writer, director, and producer). The Descent is about a group of girls, a mixture of Brits, Irish, and Yanks, who go potholing in a cave in – you’ve guessed it – the Appalachian Mountains. I’m not sure what the residents of this part of the US think about how films depict their region, but its stereotype has been cemented firmly in place ever since the release of Deliverance.

The first thing that impressed me about this film is how well it captured the experience of potholing and transferred this to the viewer. I did some potholing when I was an army cadet some 10 or 12 years ago, and so was able to judge with some degree of accuracy. The camera follows the girls through some extremely tight spaces, some with water in, and the microphones capture the sound superbly: the grunting, the amplified breathing, the scrape of the plastic helmet on rock, the srabbling of fingers in loose stone.

One tunnel I crawled through was called the Smartie Tube, and was aptly named: it was so narrow you could not lift your head up to see in front of you without your helmet hitting the roof, so all you could do was roll your eyes upwards to see the soles of your mate’s boots a few inches in front. Your nose was a couple of inches from the floor, and you simply couldn’t lift it any higher. All you could do was crawl forward, for the entire 20m length of the tunnel. The sounds of the girls in the film moving through the tunnels were exactly the sounds I experienced in the Smartie Tube, and the feeling of overwhelming claustrophobia was transferred from screen to the audience very well. They also show a good scene where one of the girls gets stuck early on, and she starts to panic. Her friend tells her to calm down and control her breathing, as it is the only way she’s going to become unstuck. I received similar advice when I got stuck for the first time. Claustrophobia is only controlled by breathing, and if you can regulate your breathing when in a tiny space then you have won the battle. If you get stuck, you have to remain very calm and think your way out of it. Wriggling around like they do in rugby league makes you bigger and even more stuck. That said, remaining calm and controlling your breathing in the Smartie Tube when somebody in front has panicked and is refusing to go forward is a test in self control I would not like to repeat.

So, for accuracy in depicting the experience of potholing, the film scores highly. As for the rest of the film, I don’t want to give too much away, but it gets away with what happens because – like Dog Soldiers – it never takes itself too seriously, and causes a wry grin here and there amongst the audience. The acting was pretty good, especially in some of the climbing and caving sequences (obviously the less realistic scenes were harder to pull off), and I came out suitably impressed. In summary, I’ll repeat what the reviewers say: if you liked Dog Soldiers, you’ll like this.


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