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The moving drama "The Last Descent" gets past the headlines of a Utah tragedy to show the life of one man and how he, in life and in death, touched so many others.
The movie tells the story of John Edward Jones, the 26-year-old medical student who went spelunking in Utah County's Nutty Putty Cave on Nov. 24, 2009. He got stuck in a tight space and couldn't get out. With Jones trapped at a 70-degree angle, his body upside-down and his organs fighting against gravity, more than a hundred rescue workers labored for 27 hours in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to free him.
People in Utah know that part of the story from news accounts over that Thanksgiving weekend and after. Writer-director-editor Isaac Halasima moves beyond those facts to paint a portrait of Jones' life and capture the noble spirit of the rescue team.
John, played by Chadwick Hopson, is shown as a good-natured guy, devoted to his wife, Emily (Alexis Johnson), and their baby daughter. In flashbacks, Halasima shows the arc of John and Emily's relationship, from first date through courtship, as his romantic spirit runs up against her wariness of commitment.
These scenes are intercut with moments of John talking to the people rescuing him. Most of the conversations are with Aaron (played by Utah actor Landon Henneman), a veteran rescuer who has grown dejected about the futility of his work, in light of past rescues that turned tragic. (Aaron and Susie, another rescuer played by local actor Jillian Petrie, are composite characters, based on several of the real-life search-and-rescue workers.)
John and Aaron talk practical matters, like getting John sufficient water. As the hours stretch out, they also talk about their lives and their beliefs. A single question, "Where'd you go on your mission?", serves as shorthand to signal that John is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and it's about as specifically Mormon as the movie gets.
The production captures the claustrophobia inside the cave and the urgency of rescue teams on the surface. The topside scenes were filmed at the site of Nutty Putty Cave, while the twists of the cave were re-created in a West Valley City warehouse. The look of these scenes is reminiscent of Danny Boyle's "127 Hours," another story of a trapped adventurer in the Utah wilds, and it's to this movie's credit that it can get similar effects on a microscopic budget.
Halasima (a Utah County native who has directed videos for the Provo-launched rock band Imagine Dragons) has a keen eye for evocative, graceful imagery, and he applies that touch to the numerous flashbacks and dreamlike sequences that fill in John's story outside the cave.
Thanks to those scenes, and Halasima's gentle handling, "The Last Descent" becomes more than a story of a failed rescue. It is, in the end, about John's life, and the ripple effect he had on his family, the rescue team and those of us observing from a distance.
'The Last Descent'
A medical student gets stuck in a cave in this tenderly moving drama based on a real Utah incident.
Where • Area theaters.
When • Opens Friday, Sept. 16.
Rating • PG for thematic elements and a perilous situation.
Running time • 105 minutes.