The key to a good "ordeal movie" is giving the audience a vicarious sensation that they're enduring the ordeal right along with the central characters. Done right, the effect is nerve-rattling. (Last summer's Fall is a great example.) The Dive has a premise with a ton of potential. Unfortunately, director Maximilian Erlenwein rushes through his story's events, never letting us feel the terror felt by the two protagonists.
May (Louisa Krause) and Drew (Sophie Lowe) are sisters who go on an annual diving excursion together. Setting up at a remote location, they plunge about a hundred feet down when catastrophe strikes. A rockslide occurs, leaving May pinned and running out of air. She instructs Drew to swim back up, grab the extra air tanks, and get the tire jack out of the car trunk. That turns out to be more difficult than expected, forcing Drew to make several trips up and down in her rescue efforts.
Depth can be a very scary thing, as movies from The Abyss to 47 Meters Down have shown. The Dive tries to play on that fear, then adds the element of being stuck, not unlike 127 Hours. It's a nightmare scenario, yet the film is so determined to be a breakneck thriller that it undermines the weight of May's peril. Most of the story focuses on Drew. That does lead to a couple mildly suspenseful scenes - as when she can't get the trunk to open - but it also largely bypasses the idea most likely to get under our skin. We need more scenes conveying the panic May feels, not knowing if her sister will return in time.
The film makes the additional mistake of cramming in distracting flashbacks to show a past source of tension between the women. It's very thin and one-dimensional, so their backstory adds nothing significant. Time would have been better spent establishing the state of their relationship at the beginning, rather than jamming it in after the crisis starts.
Krause and Lowe do the best they can with shallow roles, and the movie is certainly well photographed. Not once does it feel like the actresses are swimming around in a giant tank. You get a sense of the darkness underwater, as well as the ease of becoming disoriented. The Dive is nevertheless a picture that doesn't do the work of putting viewers where they need to be. If you don't feel like you're in danger of drowning, you won't feel like May is in danger either.
Bottom line: A cool idea is ruined by middling execution.
out of four
The Dive is unrated, but contains mild language. The running time is 1 hour and 31 minutes.