Eric’s Review: Underwater (2020)

ATMOSfx! Woo!

★★★1/2 out of ★★★★★

Underwater is a furiously paced movie that applies the pressure early (pun intended) and rarely lets you up for air (pun intended again). The familiar setting and lack of character arcs are overcome by a strong cast, great production values, and a simple but well-executed plot.

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, but also to Hollywood’s occasional inability to peg horror movies correctly, so they abandon promoting the movies and put it out to January pasture. But there can be gems to be found, for sure. Past January released horror films includes 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 that they should have had more faith in. It is a big, adventurous, thrilling, and good looking movie. It also happens to be a movie produced by Fox, which as most of us know, has been purchased by Disney. This is a test of whether Disney really supports horror, even a PG-13 piece like Underwater. I think 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 (underwater base collapsing and monsters all around) it really feels like 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), a mechanical engineer on a deep-sea drilling rig, starting her work shift while most of the crew are sleeping in their bunks. What are they drilling for? It doesn’t seem to matter much, except for the fact that they are drilling into the deepest sections of the Abyss, which 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 is the sort of movie that will identify the location of the facilities, to establish how deep and remote the station is, and how many people work there. This particular station, Kepler 822, has over 300 people working on it, but right after the introductory monologue, things go kablooey, and you don’t have to worry about most of those people! (Whew! Saved that casting budget! As bulkheads fail, corridors flood and the containment fails, Norah manages to connect with fellow survivor Rodrigo (Mamoudou Athie; The Circle) and as they scramble for safety they rescue Paul (T.J. Miller; Deadpool, Silicon Valley) and eventually 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. The crew suspects that they got hit by a trench earthquake (not implausible) but they are cut off from the surface. All of the working escape pods have launched, and 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 which is a mile long treck across the seafloor.

The short planning respite ends, and the anxious crew gears up into huge mech underwater suits, which look really impressive. They remind me of something out of Starcraft, of Warhammer 20,000 for those of you gamer types in the know. This feature has some fantastic production value and it is a testament to the prop designers and the actors that these suits work so 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. The suits are not entirely undamaged, and the risk of the crushing weight of the sea is pervasive.

And… monsters. This is one of those movies that really 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 a variety of these beasties, some of them 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 pretty briskly. When you get to the conclusion, there is a jaw-dropping reveal that unveils something out of popular lore that I dare not say much more about, 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 really 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 plague these types of movies. Unfortunately that does lend itself to a little generic flavoring to the crew. In fact, it is often hard to remember their names during the movie. Kristen Stewart does a fine job of 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.

You do get established that Smith and Emily are smitten and that the captain and Norah have a good platonic history together, but that’s about 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. This is a solid cast, and though I think they could have expanded their backstories, it’s a pro group of actors holding down their roles.

I am a fan of creature features. And, 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, but I can comfortably say that this was a very enjoyable action horror film that does have thrills and tension throughout. 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 years big shark movie pulled its punches on the visceral scares, Underwater manages to deliver real dread, and better than most in this type of film even without a lot of gore. The characters don’t make hugely foolish actions or behave boorishly. You actually root for all of them to make it out alive. I would have really appreciated it if they didn’t resort to the very PG-13 violin shriek jump scare, in a movie that is this dark and this ominous, you really don’t need the blaring audible jump scare. It takes me out of the movie when overused.

The movie is very derivative to be sure, but I think if it’s well done, horror fans can be forgiving of the familiar. If I were to say to 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 performances. This does not achieve the highs of Aliens, but 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 really didn’t make a big media push for it, that this film will be a box office dud, and it deserves 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!

Review by Eric Li

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