Concerning The Descent (2205), it behooves one to ask who is descending and into what, precisely, the characters are descending. The “who” is a team of nubile young women, and the “what” is an underground cavern. Symbolically, a cavern represents the womb, and an underground world suggests the interiority of the person, an interiority that is not normally seen or surveyed--the unconscious mind. The idea of descending, of “going down,” also has, perhaps, a vaguely sexual--and, in the context of an all-female cast, a homosexual, or lesbian--connotation. Women are going down together, inside a giant womb symbol, just as they are undertaking an exploration of their unconscious mind.
Women often regard one another as rivals rather than as friends--or so it is said, at any rate. The Descent builds upon this idea of same-sex rivalry. Although they do encounter strange, fetus-like creatures, they discover, as their relatively superficial friendships falter, that they actually have more to fear from one another than from the monsters as they become as much their own enemies as the adversaries of the beasts that stalk them.
The cast of characters ranges across the spectrum of social roles available to contemporary women, and the women’s varied nationalities and ethnicities suggest that this movie is about all women everywhere, rather than just the five who actually make up the expedition’s party. Juno is the intrepid adventuress; Sarah, a Brit, is the wife and mother; the British Beth, her friend, is her confidante; and the European sisters, Rebecca and Sam (note the masculine name), are, respectively, the timid female and the competent professional woman. The only man in any of the women’s lives, Sarah’s husband, Paul, a role-reversed Mr. Mom who tends to their daughter, Jessica, is out of the picture, as is the child: father and daughter were killed in a car accident following a rafting adventure in which Sarah and her girlfriends participated.
Juno, the movie suggests, may be bisexual, for, just before their spelunking expedition begins, she and her team are joined by the reckless and obviously butch Holly, Juno’s friend. Wife-and-mother Sarah and her best friend, Beth, harbor resentment toward Juno, who abandoned them the previous year. Her abandonment of her friends haunts Juno’s dreams, and it is obvious that she feels guilty about her actions.
These dreams also set up the shifting themes of the character’s waking (conscious) and sleeping (unconscious) lives, heralding their descent into their unconscious, where they will confront their deepest, most secret fears, as embodied by the strange fetus-creatures who will hunt them.
The contours of the cave they explore resemble the shape of the womb. Wide at the entrance (vagina), it narrows toward the middle (cervix), and then opens again, into another wider space (uterus, or womb). As the women negotiate their way through the womb-cave, Sarah, the wife and mother, gets stuck and, suffering from claustrophobia, panics. As subtext, her becoming trapped seems to represent pregnancy, which causes a woman to get “stuck,” physically and, to some extent, both emotionally and socially, if not vocationally, as well, for nine months in a process that, for many, epitomizes femininity. Beth, her best friend, plays the role of the midwife, delivering Sarah, but the birth process represented by Beth’s freeing Sarah from the cave’s narrowed passageway goes awry: the womb-cave collapses, burying the women inside a womb-become-a-tomb. Their gender, especially as it is involved in pregnancy, has not only trapped them, but it has also, in fact, buried them alive.
Juno announces that she has duped her friends. In pretending that they would be exploring an already-charted cavern while taking them to an unexplored cave instead, she has betrayed her fellow women. Femininity, represented by the charted cavern, was once familiar and non-threatening, but, now, as represented by an unknown cave, it has become an alien, unknown, and possibly hazardous region. Juno has risked their lives along with her own to realize her ambition to have a cave named for her as a sort of shortcut to a symbolic or surrogate motherhood.
Juno seeks a new way by which women can generate and produce, if not reproduce, except that the way is not new. It is the age-old technological-masculine substitute for women’s natural ability to reproduce life through the feminine-exclusive means of pregnancy and childbirth, as men seek to create material artifacts through technological-masculine means in imitation of, and compensation for, women’s natural-feminine ability to have children. Juno seems to want to usurp these technological-masculine means by asserting her will over the other women and over the womb-cave to which she has brought them for this purpose. In the process, she has endangered the lives of both herself and the other members of the party, ostensibly her friends but really her rivals. None of them sees the other danger--the drooling mouth, a sort of vagina dentata--that appears, briefly, in the foreground of the scene. Playing the role of the midwife a second time, Beth points a way out of the womb-cave: art, in the form of a mural painted by Native Americans (Roseau’s “noble savages”), shows the trapped women a way out of their predicament, depicting a second exit from the womb-cave.
As they continue their descent, Holly, thinking she sees sunlight, rushes along the cavern, heedless of Juno’s command to slow down, and falls, breaking a leg. Lesbianism, with a patina of machismo, as an alternative means of satisfying one’s sexual desires, is crippled, and it hinders women in their explorations of themselves as individuals and of their femininity as women. As the sisterhood tends to their injured comrade, the traditional wife-and mother, Sarah, wanders off, on her own, encountering one of the womb-cave’s misshapen, aborted-fetus-like monsters, which seem to represent her (and her companions’) forsaking of traditional and biological maternal roles. The creatures are an army, it seems, of outraged fetuses or, perhaps, could-have-been fetuses, who were aborted by virtue of the women’s decision to renounce their baby-making capability in favor of pursuing the more traditionally masculine role of explorer. Things quickly go from bad to worse.
The lesbian has been crippled, but now she is killed by one of the creatures, and her ostensible lover, Juno, the leader of the women’s group, struggles with the murderous monster for the remains of the slain woman. The monster, as an aborted fetus, perhaps, represents the traditional role of women or, at least, its outcome, but it is a role that has been thwarted by the women’s will--their choice--to engage in spelunking.
By using a tool--a pickaxe, representing an artifact of the technological-masculine order--Juno scars the fetus-monster’s face, but it drags Holly’s body off as a second monster attacks Juno. The women’s leader manages to kill her attacker, with the man-made pickaxe, but she also mortally wounds the timid member of their sisterhood, the wife-and-mother’s best friend, Beth. In denying one’s femininity, an alpha woman like Juno, it appears, can have a negative, even a fatal, effect on the lives of lesser (read, more traditional) women. Feminism, especially in its extreme form, may not be good for all ladies. As Beth begs Juno to help her, Juno, as if confirming the prophetic nature of her earlier nightmares, abandons Beth to her fate. Sarah dreams of her daughter, but, this time, Jessica has the face of one of the aborted-fetus-monsters, the imagery establishing the thematic connection between children (or would-be children) and their abandonment (or abortion).
As if crippling and then killing the renegade woman-lesbian were not enough for the outraged, vengeful fetus-monsters, the creatures fall upon Holly’s corpse, consuming it, as Sarah, rescued by Juno, flees. The women discover that the creatures are blind and rely upon their heightened sense of hearing to hunt their prey.
The masculine-named Sam is embracing her sister, the distraught, timid girly girl, Rebecca; however Sam, emasculated with fear at the sight of a monster, is unable to protect or to defend her sister, and it is up to heroic Juno, armed with the man-made pickaxe, once again, to save a damsel in distress.
In her retreat from the feeding pit in which the monsters are devouring the remains of the lesbian, Sarah encounters Beth, telling her friend how Juno had abandoned her, and Sarah fulfills Beth’s request that she kill her to put her out of her misery. The wife-mother has killed her midwife, but, it appears, not soon enough, for a child-like monster attacks Sarah, forcing her to kill (abort) the fetus-creature. Nature, through its exercise of the biological imperative, reasserts its will, as another fetus-monster --the slain creature’s mother (or the mother role itself, which has been thwarted by Sarah’s murder of the child)--attacks Sarah.
In fending off the female monster’s attack, Sarah falls into a pool of (menstrual?) blood, where the female monster (maternal instinct) pins her. Using a sharp bone fragment (symbolic, it seems, of the death instinct, which, in Freudian psychology, is opposed to eros, the life instinct), Sarah kills the monster, but its mate, the male of the species, then attacks her. She manages to kill it with the bone fragment as well.
Sam and Rebecca are next to be dispatched by the monsters, before the creatures force Juno to jump into a pit of water. After killing a creature lurking in the water, Juno climbs the side of pit, but loses her grip and slides back into the crater. Sarah, appearing above, grabs her, hauling her out of the depression. It’s obvious from her expression that she scorns Juno for having abandoned Beth to her fate. However, her contempt is forgotten for the moment when they are again attacked by the fetus-creatures. They kill their attackers, and, when Juno is distracted by additional creatures, Sarah stabs Juno in the leg, abandoning her to her fate, as Juno had earlier abandoned Beth.
As the monsters descend upon Juno, Sarah flees, escapes through an exit in the cave, and drives off--or so she thinks. As Juno’s bloodied corpse appears beside her in the car’s passenger seat, she realizes that she is merely daydreaming; her escape was just an illusion, and the exit she thought she’d seen was nothing. She’s fled into a dead-end arm (a Fallopian tube) of the cavern. She thinks of her daughter, who offers her birthday cake. The monsters--fetus-like creatures representing, perhaps, her abandonment of her role as a mother--are heard, descending upon her, as the film ends.
The Descent may be regarded as a repudiation of extreme feminism’s demand that women, to become authentic individuals, abandon the roles of mother and wife, forsaking family and even the childbearing role that nature and biology, no less than society, have assigned to them. This is the lesson that the women learn, too late, from their exploration of their unconscious minds that is represented by the cave, which also doubles as the ultimate symbol of femininity, the womb itself.