Kristen Stewart battles a sinking sealab and aquatic beasties in this drab, but workable deep-sea thriller.
Not every genre film has to reinvent the wheel. Do you want to see Alien, but at the bottom of the ocean? Of course. What about Gravity in the Marianas Trench? Sounds pretty cool! How about The Abyss, but even deeper? Sign me up, please. During these cold, dead winter months, seeing a B-movie that is derivative of past, much better films, can be soothing, like hearing someone tell a great story for the fifth time. It’s not as good as the first time you heard it, but it’s still familiar enough to be fun.
Unfortunately, Underwater, starring Kristen Stewart, is a B-movie that takes from all of those previously mentioned films but doesn’t give enough back for anyone to have a good time. Take the title, for instance: it’s extremely specific yet frustratingly vague at the same time. It would be like if they called Jaws… Beach.
The film opens on a mechanical engineer named Norah (Stewart) standing in the bathroom of a giant deepwater laboratory, built by an evil corporation (aren’t they all?) in order to drill at the bottom of the ocean.
As one can guess, they drill too deep, which causes an earthquake that destroys the lab. Norah and a few other survivors have to make their way to safety while surviving the collapsing structure, as well as some nasty deep-sea monsters that are unleashed in the process.
It can be a blessing when genre films get right to the action, and this is a film that truly does not need much exposition. But it still feels like we’re missing a first act to establish the characters and setting: we don’t know what any of these people mean to each other, much less their interpersonal dynamics. When the film gets around to trying to get us to care about these people, the results are bizarre and underwhelming. For example, when we first meet fellow employee Paul (T.J. Miller), the duly-appointed comic relief, Norah rescues him from the bottom of some wreckage and he jokingly remarks that she’s flat-chested. Screenwriters Brian Duffield and Adam Cozad wrote that line, read it and said, “audiences will love this character.”
We also don’t get much of a sense of who Norah is besides a confusing voice-over that bookends the film, or when the movie makes a point to show that she doesn’t like killing bugs. Stewart can still be compelling, and there are moments when her physical, focused performance overcomes the film’s restraints; she can tell you everything you need to know about her character in a single facial expression.
The movie also does a bad job of establishing the simple geography of its setting. The lab is a huge complex, and the characters are always going from one part to another, but where locations are in relation to each other, I could not tell you. When the film displays title cards to show where they are, I can only giggle at its uselessness.
It can be a blessing when genre films get right to the action, and this is a film that truly does not need much exposition.
Cinematographer Bojan Bazelli has proven he can shoot beautifully macabre images with his work on Gore Verbinski films like The Ring and A Cure for Wellness. But here the image is so dark and disorienting (especially out in the open ocean floor) it’s a challenge to figure out where the characters are in any given scene. It also doesn’t help that the film rushes to the end like a person wanting to get home to watch the opening kickoff of a football game.
In the rare moments where the movie gives itself time to breathe, director William Eubank is finally able to accomplish a nerve-wracking dread that his forebears achieved. There’s a scene where the crew is crawling through a tight space in the lab wreckage that evokes the claustrophobic panic of The Descent, and the slow reveal of the final water monster baddie is spookily reminiscent of the Queen reveal in Aliens.
A horror movie set deep in the ocean should be a slam dunk. If you’ve ever Googled “deep-sea creatures”, you know it’s a terrifying place. Sadly, Underwater whiffs on a great premise, but you can just watch Alien for the fifth time instead.
Underwater dives into theaters and gives you the bends on January 10th.
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