John Gallagher, Jr.
1 Hr., 35 Mins.
Underwater January 14, 2020
he first half an hour or so of most monster movies usually serves as a brief respite before all hell breaks loose. But in Underwater (2020), the third feature-length effort from cinematographer turned filmmaker William Eubank, chaos reigns almost immediately. Our first point of contact in the film, which is entirely set at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, is Norah Price (Kristen Stewart), a mechanical engineer. She’s
employed by Tian Industries, which has built a massive station seven miles below the sea to “drill for resources.” When we first meet her, she’s doing her before-bed routine in an empty bathroom.
Something is off. Aside from the daddy long-legs spider Norah spots crawling in the sink (“You’re not supposed to be here,” she says in a verbal act of foreshadowing), the lights keep flickering. Small bursts of noise — like someone dribbling a basketball in slow motion on the floor above — break the pin-drop silence. Suddenly, a full-blown earthquake hits. A large chunk of the station implodes from the pressure. Norah and a handful of other survivors, played by Mamoudou Athie and real-life horrible person T.J. Miller, are barely able to meet up with the captain (Vincent Cassel) and other surviving colleagues (Jessica Henwick and John Gallagher, Jr.) in time. They need to figure out how to safely get to the surface. But as it always goes, such is more straightforward on the drawing board.
Underwater, which runs for a trim 95 minutes, is mostly a combination of the cheeky disaster movie The Poseidon Adventure (1972), the killer-shark comedy-thriller Deep Blue Sea (1999), and the creatures-in-a-cave fright-fest The Descent (2005). It’s capably made and well-acted — Stewart especially evinces herself a formidable physical performer, as she also did with last year’s better-than-rumored Charlie’s Angels.
But Underwater lands on an unspecific, uninteresting middle-ground between these films. This isn’t a nicely pulpy survival-slash-monster movie, and it isn’t that successful of a claustrophobia-centered horror show. We don’t watch it with the sadomasochistic glee we typically do when watching a big-budgeted, 1970s-era Ronald Neame-produced actioner, which Underwater in some senses resembles. (I’d say it’s the succession of “missions” capped off by someone getting dramatically killed off.) And it doesn’t chill us in the way something like Alien (1979), which has a similar conceit, does.
The film also wants to say something meaningful about environmental destruction at the hands of avaricious corporations, with a what-would-happen-if-nature-fought-back twist. But Underwater is too indistinct and redundant of other monster features (which for the most part all work in some way or another as a nightmarish polemic against capitalistic greed) to be that sharp or memorable of an indictment. There are no big achievements here, except that it knows and proficiently executes the right moves and is centered on a better-than-it-has-to-be Stewart performance. It’s too competent, too aware of the films which made it possible. It’s a more-horrific-than-delightful monster movie you don’t need to watch because you’ve seen enough other ones to get an idea. I did like the moment where the big-bad creature, which has gone unseen the whole movie, is revealed. I think that’s because I’ve never seen anything quite like this beast before. C+