Release Date: January 10, 2020
Cast: Kristen Stewart, Vincent Cassel, Jessica Henwick, John Gallagher Jr., Mamoudou Athie, T.J. Miller
Director: William Eubank
Studio: Chernin Entertainment
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
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Underwater follows the story of mechanical engineer Nora (Kristen Stewart) as she attempts to escape the collapse of a deep-sea research and mining facility run by a shadowy corporation. She and her fellow survivors must attempt a high-risk walk across the ocean floor to a nearby base to escape the Marianas Trench and head to the surface. While the reason for the collapse is initially thought to be an earthquake, the survivors soon uncover a new species of underwater monsters that hunt humans. It’s a pretty formulaic, sci-fi horror film from director William Eubank (The Signal, Love).
Each character falls pretty neatly into the typical archetypes associated with this genre: Stewart’s rough but competent protagonist, the noble but melancholic Captain (Vincent Cassel), the panicked scientist Emily (Jessica Henwick), the quipping comic relief (TJ Miller), and the muscle (John Gallagher Jr.). It even falls into the horror trope of killing off the black character first as Mamoudou Athie’s crewman is the first character to die onscreen before the survivors even leave the rig.
The monsters are pretty boring considering that they look like humans wearing flippers and with squids for heads, which seems like wasted potential considering the diversity of weird-looking life at the bottom of the ocean. Several of the jump scares are clearly signposted and feel like a cheap scare more than anything.
TJ Miller’s character is frankly annoying. While there’s a good reason to have a character whose job is to keep the movie’s tone from slipping too dark with the occasional quip, but Miller capitalized on every on-screen moment to deliver another one-liner. After the fifth quip in as many minutes, they start to lose their charm.
There are other critiques I could have for this movie, but they would be asking for a different movie altogether. The truth is, other than the critiques above, Underwater is very good at doing what it set out to do: a quick piece of distraction fluff that gives just enough of an adrenaline rush from ominous strings into a jump scare, just enough satisfaction when the heroes make it through their next challenge, just enough revulsion as a character dies gruesomely, and just enough background to invest the audience emotionally. As formulaic as the movie is, it is pitch-perfect in recreating that formula.
That’s even before mentioning what really works in Underwater as well. Stewart, for example, has good chemistry with her supporting cast, especially Cassel and Henwick. Stewart delivers some subtle moments that deepen what is otherwise a character traditional to this world of science fiction horror movies.
The backstory for Cassel’s captain is paid off in a satisfying and subtle way that explains a great deal of the subtext surrounding the character. The production design, in particular, the collapsing or derelict bases and the deep-sea diving suits, is an easy highlight of the film. The fact that the technology of the suits and the vastness of the deep ocean are obstacles to our heroes as much as the monsters is a classic trope in this genre. This grounds the film in the tradition of harder science-fiction, following through on the captain’s warning that “these suits are dangerous.”
The last proper shot of the film is a gorgeous piece of cinematography and does some work to justify some of the other seemingly more trivial shots from earlier in the film. Each of these pieces never really elevates Underwater to transcend its housing as a fun genre film, but I think asking them to would be a mistake.
Underwater begins with the barest of opening scenes before the walls of the base shatter, pouring in water, before Nora begins her mad dash to survive, showing exactly where this movie stands. It is a short and sweet adventure and thrill ride, where characters die when it’s their time, but enjoy enough success to keep the energy moving forward. There isn’t much else to the film, but Underwater never has pretentions that there is, which, given some of the films I’ve been seeing lately, is strangely refreshing.