Underwater (2020) is a furiously paced movie that applies the pressure early (pun intended) and rarely lets you up for air (pun intended again). A strong cast, great production values, and a simple but well-executed plot overcome the familiar setting and lack of character arcs.
Directed by William Eubank
Beware the January movie. It is well known as a dumping ground for movies that Hollywood has no faith in. However, horror fans are a curious breed and not afraid to rummage around in Hollywood’s waste bin. This speaks partly to the tolerance of horror fans of movies that mainstream critics will dismiss out of hand. It also indicts Hollywood’s occasional inability to peg horror movies correctly. They often abandon promoting the movies and put them out to January pasture. But some movie treasures can be uncovered in the January scrapyard. Past January released horror films include some truly entertaining fare: The Relic, Hostel, My Bloody Valentine, Tremors, Cloverfield, and one of my unsung movies from last year, Pledge.
Underwater presents a poster child for the mistreatment of major studios for a movie they should have had more faith in. It is a big, adventurous, thrilling, and good-looking movie. Fox produced this movie. Fox is now a Disney subsidiary. This film tests whether Disney supports horror, even a PG-13 piece like Underwater. We know the answer: Disney/Fox is not hugely supportive of their horror properties. They stuck this film in the early January slot and abandoned it, which is a shame. Despite the familiar story structure, it’s punching above its weight class.
The movie wastes no time getting into the action. We get a brief introduction to Norah (Kristen Stewart; Twilight, Lizzie). She is a mechanical engineer on a deep-sea drilling rig, starting her work shift while most of the crew sleep in their bunks. What are they drilling for? It doesn’t seem to matter much, except that they are drilling into the deepest sections of the Abyss. This, of course, will lead to nothing but trouble. This is the same setup as The Abyss, Deep Star Six, Leviathan, and Sphere… all of which pay serious homage, of course, to Alien and, by extension, The Thing.
This deep ocean station, Kepler 822, has over 300 people working on it. But, right after the introductory monologue, things go kablooey. Now you don’t have to worry about most of those crew! (Whew! The producers saved that casting budget!) As bulkheads fail, corridors flood, and the containment fails, Norah connects with fellow survivor Rodrigo (Mamoudou Athie; The Circle). They scramble for safety when they rescue Paul (T.J. Miller; Deadpool, Silicon Valley). After struggling through the flooding wreck, they reunite with Captain Lucien (Vincent Cassel; Black Swan), biologist Emily (Jessica Henwick; Iron Fist, The Force Awakens), and engineer Liam Smith (John Gallagher Jr.; Hush, The Belko Experiment)
The station is 70% ruined and on the verge of complete collapse. Was it an earthquake? It’s possible. Unfortunately, All communications have been cut off from the surface so nobody knows much of anything. Further bad news: all of the working escape pods have launched. It becomes clear that what the survivors need to do is cross the bottom of the Marianas trench to reach the gigantic Roebuck drilling rig. No big thing. It’s only a mile-long trek across the pitch-black seafloor. (With monsters!)
The short planning respite ends and the anxious crew gears up into huge mech underwater suits, which look very impressive. They remind me of something out of Starcraft or Warhammer 20,000 for those gamer types in the know. This feature has fantastic production value and is a testament to the prop designers and the actors that these suits work well. Once the team descends into the abyss, things go from horrible to hellish. The station is coming apart at the seams above them, dropping massive structural components that threaten to flatten them. Some of the suits are lightly damaged. Will they hold up to the crushing abyssal depths? They take their chances and head for the sea floor.
And… monsters. This is one of those movies that holds the monsters back for a good long while. The disturbed seafloor has churned a lot of debris in the water, and the silty background makes visibility lousy. And guess what? There are creepy things in the water, and they are extremely aggressive. There are various beasties, some vaguely humanoid but also with bits of manta ray, squid, and piranha mixed in. You never really get a good look at them, but the addition of the monsters, of course, forces the crew to pick up the pace and change their strategies.
Like most movies of this type, it is a dwindling crew scenario. It is an environment where everything out there threatens to end your life. The movie alternates between the abyssal plain and places of periodic refuge, but the simple plot marches briskly. When you reach the conclusion, there is a jaw-dropping reveal that unveils something out of popular lore. I dare not say much more other than I audibly cheered. The closing sequences lend some notion that perhaps the drilling company just might be… a CULT. That’s my take, and I’m running with it!
This is a pure popcorn movie. There isn’t much drama apart from the strong and pervasive desire to escape, and there isn’t a jerk antagonist amongst the crew that often plagues these types of movies. Unfortunately, that does lend itself to a little generic flavoring to the crew. It is often hard to remember their names during the movie. Kristen Stewart does a fine job portraying a tough and capable heroine, but even her lead character has the roughest skeleton of personality. For those of you hung up about Kristen Stewart’s Twilight past, please… get over it.
Character development in Underwater is thin. Smith and Emily are smitten and that the captain and Norah have a good platonic history together, but that’s all you are given for character development. T.J. Miller is there for comic relief, and he has his moments, but he’s not as good as he is in Deadpool. His running gag with a stuffed bunny was a little touch that I did appreciate. The script could have added backstories, but this is a solid cast. These are a pro group of actors holding down their roles.
I am a fan of creature features. I will always be on board for a good underwater genre film, and I appreciate how HARD it is to make an underwater movie. So, I am prone to giving such movies the benefit of the doubt. This film thrilled me. First-rate set designs. Tension and pressure in so many ways. I’m certain that most of the water effects were done in post, but I never felt the presence of CGI, except for the long shots of the station and drill rig, where your mind knows that such things do not exist.
Underwater actually manages to escape the PG-13 curse. It offers up more real scares than The Meg (which is a bit of a guilty pleasure for me). But, whereas last year’s big shark movie pulled its punches on the visceral scares, Underwater delivers real dread and is better than most in this type of film, even without much gore. The characters don’t take hugely foolish actions or behave boorishly. You root for all of them to make it out alive. I would have appreciated it if they didn’t resort to the PG-13 violin shriek jump scare. In a movie that is this dark and this ominous, you don’t need the blaring audible jump scare. It takes me out of the movie when overused.
Is it derivative? Sure. If it’s well done, horror fans can be forgiving of the familiar. If I were to tell you that this movie was on par with Pitch Black and Pandorum, would that interest you? Those would be good comparable films in style, tone, and performance. This does not achieve the highs of Aliens. However, I would suggest that Underwater is better than any of the later films in the Alien franchise. Stay tuned for a dead list of ocean-based horror films. Such inspiration!
I fear that because Fox unloaded this movie when it did and didn’t make a big media push for it, this film will be a box office dud. It deserves far better. If you are a creature feature or action-horror fan, I suggest that you go out and support fare like this on the big screen so we can get more like it. Perhaps since it opens at a time with little competition, it might do well. You can always hope.
Underwater is rated PG-13 for intense action, monster mashing, and some rough language. It is currently playing in theaters across the US, but I’d go see it soon, as the Box Office projections suggest it may not be there long!