When I first caught a trailer for Underwater, the Kristen Stewart-led creature-feature set amidst the murky depths of the Mariana Trench, I made the out-loud joke to my friends and fellow theater-goers “Is that really the title?” I got a laugh. My gentle disparagement of the film’s simple nomenclature aside, I was eager to catch the film.
An Alien knock-off with cool monsters set in the deep ocean? That’s got to be fun! Right?
Director: William Eubank
Released: January 10, 2020
Underwater plunges us into the corridors of a deep sea mining operation, where some budding corporation is drilling into the chunky rocks of the ocean coveting “resources.” The premise is as vague as that, with the film immediately saddling us with Norah (Kristen Stewart), an engineer on the drill operation whose routine teeth-brushing is interrupted within moments when the station experiences a catastrophic hull breach, depressurizing and imploding vast swaths of it.
Making a narrow escape by the skin of her teeth alongside Rodrigo (Mamoudou Athie), another worker on the station, Norah regroups with her captain (Vincent Cassel) and a small band of survivors, including resident wise-cracker Paul (TJ Miller), a naive biologist (Jessica Henwick), and her engineer partner (John Gallagher Jr). Banding together to flee the crumbling station, the gang finds more than flooding machinery is out to get them on the ocean’s floor. Underwater, no one can hear you scream.
My framing of Underwater as an Alien-wannabe is neither jab nor praise, but objective observation in the ways in which Ridley Scott’s 1979 masterpiece has forever left its mark on cinema. Norah’s framing as a strong female lead isn’t necessarily a direct counterpart to Ripley’s courage in the face of the xenomorph, but certainly the likeness is there. Moreover, the dreary white halls of the drilling station have a way of recalling those same ones of the Nostromo; crumbling, wiry infrastructure where cables plaster the walls like veins feel like nods to the designs of HR Geiger, while the bulky dive suits could double as space walkers in all but function. It’s almost common sense, but yes, the deep ocean functions much as deep space, and introducing the “alien” element in Underwater makes an already-oppressive environment all the more dangerous.
It would never be fair to hold Underwater to the standard of Alien--or any other film for that matter--so how does it fare? The aforementioned implosion of the station is shot in a slam-bang, almost impressionistic fashion, with a shaking, barely-comprehensible camera rushing with Norah as she slides and trips through the sparking halls. Later, once our action has stabilized some, Underwater gives us a suitably murky look into its aquatic world. Eubank and cinematographer Bojan Bazelli use the natural darkness of their setting to create an atmospheric sense of loneliness, with the black of the deep ocean obscuring our view and any certainty we might have in peering into the void. The obscurity also lends itself well to selling our creatures, once they rear their ugly gills.
The effects work in Underwater is fairly impressive, with the monsters behaving less like movie villains and more like animals, and the balance between showing and implying is goo enough. Beyond special effects, the design of the station feels familiar in its architecture but effective in its vibes.
So the presentation is good, and Underwater does a serviceable job of selling us on its dilapidated station. If only it had more blood flowing through its heart than it did flowing from open monster-wounds.
When I said Norah’s morning was interrupted moments into the film, I wasn’t kidding. Underwater starts us in the chaos, with the reveal of the creatures meant to be the jolt in the narrative that gets us. Only, it doesn’t really do that. You don’t need an hour of character development to invest in a story, but Underwater certainly expenses no effort in endearing us to these characters. You’ve got jokes-guy, panicky rookie, diligent leader, and so on and so forth. Archetypes in a narrative are great, and in genre films to be expected. I only wish we had a little more time to get some more character in, familiar though they may be, before we were slammed into the bulkhead by loud explosions and plot.
As genre-fare you could always do worse than something like Underwater. It’s competently-designed and produced, but lacking anything really distinctive. Mercifully, we never get too much of a “case of the stupids,” with characters behaving rationally and few moments where I furrowed my brow, thinking “That doesn’t make sense…” And when it comes to films like this, I think it’s worth noting when, at least, they don’t drown the audience in implausibilities and nonsensical scripting for the sake of a creepy-crawly bloodbath.
Underwater might have had the odds stacked against it, with filmgoers spying bits of their favorite movies in the aesthetic and marketing, but that’s no reason to judge it harshly. Really, there’s nothing outright bad on display here, with Stewart always watchable (the cast in its entirety does their part) and a budget that shows in the dripping halls of the facility. To say this was a missed opportunity though, is only a half-critique. Truly great genre movies come along and uproot us, subverting expectations or just doing things really darn well. But for norms to be defied and averages to be surpassed there needs to be a standard set. A great genre movie, Underwater is not. But it’s one of the soldiers in the battle; cannon fodder to set the stage for a type of film that is always reliable as water is wet.