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The following FAQ entries may contain spoilers. Only the biggest ones (if any) will be covered with spoiler tags. Spoiler tags have been used sparingly in order to make the page more readable.
For detailed information about the amounts and types of (a) sex and nudity, (b) violence and gore, (c) profanity, (d) alcohol, drugs, and smoking, and (e) frightening and intense scenes in this movie, consult the IMDb Parents Guide for this movie. The Parents Guide for The Descent can be found here.
Six thrill-seeking friends -- Juno Kaplan (Natalie Mendoza), Sarah Carter (Shauna Macdonald), Beth O'Brien (Alex Reid), Sam (MyAnna Buring) and Rebecca (Saskia Mulder)Van Nuy, and Holly Miles (Nora-Jane Noone) -- decide to go spelunking in Boreham Cavern somewhere in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina. Once inside the cavern, Juno reveals that they aren't in Boreham Cavern but an unknown cave system that Juno wants to explore and become famous for naming it. When the tunnel suddenly collapses behind them, they have nowhere to go but forward in hopes of finding another exit, but they soon come to realize that they are not alone in the caves...they are being pursued by a pack of bloodthirsty humanoid creatures. The film features both a physical and a metaphorical descent. As the spelunkers descend further and further into the cavern, they also suffer a descent into madness.
Descent is based on an original screenplay written and directed by English film-maker Neil Marshall. A sequel, The Descent: Part 2, followed in 2009.
The humanoid creatures, referred to as "Crawlers" in the credits, are, according to director Marshall, "cave men that never left the cave; they evolved over thousands of years, living down there in families. They've lost their eyesight; they have acute hearing and smell; and they function perfectly in the pitch black." It is shown and implied in this movie, as well as the sequel, The Descent: Part 2, that the Crawlers do, however, come to the surface to hunt animals such as wolves, deer, etc, and bring their carcasses back to the caves for food. A photo of one of the creatures can be seen here.
Other than setting up a motivation for the women to go on their cave trip (to reaffirm their friendship and give Sarah some distraction), one possible implication is that Sarah's husband Paul (Oliver Milburn) was distracted in his driving by the presence of Juno and, as such, his suggested affair with Juno was indirectly responsible for his and his daughter's deaths. The aftermath of the accident and Juno's involvement with Paul are played out on a character level in the rest of the film as well. Apparently, Juno left the country immediately after the accident while Sarah was still in the hospital, which is a source of much tension between Juno and Beth in the second act of the movie. In addition, the loss of her husband and daughter in the crash is what begins Sarah's personal descent into the dark parts of her mind.
It is never explicitly stated, but it is strongly implied. After the raft sequence, Paul helps Juno instead of his wife. He is also distant in the car, before the accident, which Sarah does notice and which might, in fact, be at the origin of the accident itself. There are a number of significant glances exchanged between Juno and Paul, and during the party at the cabin, Sarah comments that Paul used to say the phrase "Love each day." When Sarah finds Beth dying in the cavern, Beth hands her a pendant that Juno had accidentally left on her when she stabbed her, saying "It's from Paul." At one point, Juno is told by Beth that Sarah has lost a lot on that day (day of the accident). Juno answers that "We all lost something that day," implying that she also lost someone important to her. This comes along with the revelation that Juno left the country (Scotland) precipitously that same day a year ago, leaving Sarah seriously injured in a hospital. All of this combined suggests strongly that Juno had an affair with Sarah's husband.
One explanation is that ancestors of the crawlers painted the pictures at some point in their evolution when they still had sight. However, the crawlers seem to be feral predators, showing no evidence of sophisticated skills that require at least some degree of intelligence, like art or painting. That would mean that their ancestors had these skills but lost them to evolve into instinct-driven killers, which seems doubtful. It is more likely that the paintings were done by prehistoric humans who entered the cave, but, to their detriment, found out it was inhabited by these hunters.
Holly breaks her leg and has her throat ripped open by a crawler. She is eventually eaten by them. Juno accidentally stabs Beth in the neck and leaves her to die. Beth subsequently has her head bashed in with a rock when she asks Sarah to euthanize her rather than let her be eaten alive by the crawlers. Sam's throat is slashed by a crawler while she is hanging from a pulley. Rebecca is pulled away and eaten by a crawler. Sarah wounds Juno with a pickaxe to the knee and leaves her behind to be eaten by crawlers. Sarah's fate depends upon which version of the movie you see...the R-Rated (American) version or the Unrated (UK) version. In the R-rated version, Sarah finds a way out of the caverns; in the Unrated version, Sarah is trapped in the cavern with little hope of finding a way out.
Sarah pulls Juno out of the hole into which she fell trying to escape from the crawlers. She asks what happened to Beth. 'Didn't make it,' Juno replies. 'You saw her die?' Sarah asks, and Juno nods. They notice several crawlers preparing to attack them, and they fight them off together. Sarah then wordlessly stares at Juno while dangling Juno's pendant in front of her. More crawlers are heard coming closer. Sarah picks up her pickaxe and stabs Juno in the knee, then runs off, leaving Juno to face the half dozen crawlers closing in on her. Sarah falls into a hole, landing on top a pile of human bones, and is knocked out for a short while. When she comes to, she notices a shaft of light. She climbs up the pile of bones and out of a small hole on the side of a mountain. She makes her way down to where they parked their cars and speeds off in one of them. Crying uncontrollably, she pulls off the road and vomits out the window. When she turns back into the car, she sees Juno sitting next to her, her face covered with blood. Sarah screams. The R-rated version ends here; the unrated version has this additional scene: Sarah is back in the cave, her escape being merely a dream. There is no shaft of light. She has a vision of her dead daughter sitting before her, blowing out the candles of her birthday cake. A tear rolls down Sarah's cheek, but she smiles. As the camera pulls back, it's shown that Sarah is totally alone. In the distance can be heard the gurgles and shrieks of the crawlers closing in on her.
How you interpret the ending depends upon what version of the movie you've seen. The R-rated version is fairly straightforward. Sarah is the sole survivor, and she manages to find a way out of the cave. It's when she has a vision of Juno in the car that the audience may conclude she's having a hallucination and/or has descended into madness. Some viewers have suggested that this scene is an indication of Sarah's realization that, although she could get out of the cave, she can never truly 'escape' from it. The additional scene at the end of the unrated version implies that Sarah's escape was simply a dream and that she's still down in the cave with no way out. Realizing she is about to die, she hallucinates that her dead daughter is sitting before her, blowing out the candles of her birthday cake. Another interpretation of this ending is that Sarah has simply lost the will to survive, even if there is a chance to get out. Her thoughts carry her to a touching reunion with her daughter; a foresight that, in the light of all the horror she has experienced, may even be preferable to survival. Still others interpret this ending as an indication that Sarah went mad (her DESCENT) and that she, not the crawlers, killed her friends.
Director Marshall said on the Region 2 DVD commentary that it was possible that she went slightly insane in the darkness of the cave (a 'descent into madness') and imagined the crawlers and killed her friends. He also has said on the cast's commentary that he filmed but cut out a shot of a silhouetted crawler at the end of the hospital corridor during Sarah's nightmare sequence (when she is running through the halls) to plant the idea that the crawlers were merely figments of her imagination. This has given weight to the interpretation that Sarah, not the crawlers, killed her friends.The sequel follows the reasoning that the crawlers are very real. However, since Part 2 was conceived much later, the first movie was intended to be ambiguous when it came out and may be viewed in this regard.
Some viewers have speculated that this is a reference to the lives of all six girls being snuffed out. Another theory is that it was a "happy accident." Her daughter was five when she died in the car accident and since the majority of the film takes place a year later, it could be assumed her daughter would have been six years old and Sarah is celebrating that 6th birthday with her daughter (even though it was a vision and not reality). However, on the DVD commentary, Neil Marshall and his editor acknowledge that this was simply a continuity error.
The movie had a longer, very different ending on its original release in the UK (unrated version), which was trimmed for the US release (R-rated version). A detailed comparison between the R-Rated version and the Unrated version can be found here.
The Descent is most often compared to two other movies -- WIthIN (aka The Cavern (2005) and The Cave (2005). All three movies have similar plots and are shot in a manner provoking the greatest amount of claustrophobia.
The Descent Enhanced Story Presention, with highlighted dialogue and over 100 screenshots placed in sync with the story.
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