Underwater Review: A Decent Creature Feature
How can such a predictable movie be so damn refreshing? In the storytelling department, Underwater is all washed-up, falling back on waterlogged horror cliches and heavily indebted to flicks like Alien, The Abyss, and The Descent. You know exactly where this freakshow is going from frame one, you know there will be loud clanging sounds against metal hulls. You know there will be trips down dark, soggy corridors. And you know some wriggly wet monstrosity will rear its ugly head. This is paint-by-numbers moviemaking. And yet…it’s an absolute blast?
Underwater wastes no time. We’re not even three minutes into the film before a catastrophe arises: a major collapse at an underwater research facility. Engineer Norah (Kristen Stewart, sporting a cool haircut and spending a sizable chunk of the movie running around in either a robotic dive suit or her underwear) is at the front-lines of all the explosions. But her problems are only just beginning. As the narrative unfolds, Norah and a band of other survivors will have to move from one dangerous location to the next as they attempt to get the hell out of the fast-destructing base.
Oh, also: there are monsters. You almost wish Underwater had left the monster angle out of all of its marketing. Because the first third of the movie feels more like a rusty remake of The Poseidon Adventure rather than a creature feature. Keeping the beasties completely secret would’ve made their arrival all the more thrilling. Alas, they’re all over the posters and trailers, so you know they’re coming. And when they arrive they don’t disappoint, at least in terms of nastiness. In terms of design, they’re not much to write home about – no CGI monster will ever hold a candle to the iconic Xenomorph costume. Sorry – but there are a few Lovecraftian touches (as in tentacles jutting from mouths) that do the trick.
As for the human characters, they’re paper-thin – more archetypes than individuals. There’s the nervous rookie who doesn’t belong (Jessica Henwick); the injured guy who has to be hauled along (John Gallagher Jr.); the sole African American in the group (Mamoudou Athie); a weary captain (Vincent Cassel); and of course, the wisecracking smart-ass, played by T.J. Miller (Underwater wrapped production in 2017, at a time when Miller wasn’t quite as toxic and unemployable as he is today, in case you’re wondering why he’s here at all). These folks might as well walk around with MONSTER FOOD printed across their bulky diving suits. The actors do the best they can with what they have, which isn’t much.
This is Stewart’s show, though. The indie darling brings a certain gravity to her part, managing to make Norah seem more rounded and three-dimensional than she is on paper. Stewart plays Norah as consistently nervous and anxious – an attitude that makes sense, since she’s constantly on the verge of dying. That vulnerability endears her to us. That’s not to say Norah is a helpless sap. She can take care of herself and survives more than a few close calls thanks to her wits.
And all of this looks appropriately moody and atmospheric – when you can see what’s happening, that is. Director William Eubank really embraces the darkness of the depths of the ocean here, to the point where there are more than a few scenes where you can’t see what the hell is even going on. Eubank also has a terrible habit of crashing the camera around during action beats. And on more than one occasion, when the filmmaker apparently can’t figure out how to gradually and naturally end a scene, he simply smash-cuts to black. This is not the most nuanced filmmaking of the year, and for all it owes to Alien. Eubank’s haphazard style will never be confused for the chilly control of Ridley Scott.
None of that may sound very appealing, but Underwater is so fast-paced – and blessedly short. That it’s easy to buy the salty brine it’s selling. There’s also something refreshing about a big studio movie (this is technically a Disney flick!) like this gracing multiplexes in this day and age. Hell, it’s almost quaint how unambitious this pic is. This is a completely stand-alone monster mash with a fairly sizeable budget – who knew studios even bothered with that sort of thing these days? That Underwater has been washed ashore during the dreaded January movie season is telling. But not disqualifying. Sometimes all you need to make a movie is a girl and a sea monster (or two), to paraphrase Jean-Luc Godard. By the time Stewart’s Norah says “Let’s light this shit up!” before a kick-ass climactic moment, Underwater will have you hook, line, and sinker.
A crew of underwater researchers must scramble to safety after an earthquake devastates their subterranean laboratory.
Rating: PG-13 (for sci-fi action and terror, and brief strong language)
Genre: Action & Adventure, Mystery & Suspense
Directed By: William Eubank
Written By: Brian Duffield, Adam Cozad
In Theaters: Jan 10, 2020 Wide
Runtime: 95 minutes
Studio: 20th Century Fox