Underwater (2020)

★★½

William Eubank’s Underwater is the sort of nihilistic, nonsensical, low-brow production that doesn’t see the light of day too often anymore. It’s a shameless B-movie, one whose title sequence alone – echoing the intros to both Alien and the recent Godzilla films – lets its audience know exactly what they’re in for. Its current proudly flows in the same direction as Hollywood’s greatest and quirkiest monster movies and yet, with another impressive performance from Kristen Stewart and some effectively murky cinematography from Bojan Bazelli, Underwater molds itself into a tense, entertaining, if choppy thriller.

Stewart plays Norah, a mechanic on an underwater research site that drills down miles beneath the surface, father than any man (including James Cameron) has ever gone before. For her, the setting is already disorienting – a tedious opening narration reminds us that with no sunlight, the concept of time starts to lose all meaning, blurring the lines between dreaming and waking – and for the audience, it’s inherently interesting.

Like space, the proximity of the ocean brings with it an insufferable number of questions. It’s the terrestrial equivalent of an academic blind spot and maybe, as Underwater suggests, there is a good reason for that. So, when the research station begins to crack and burst, and what’s left of the crew must scurry across a mile of the ocean floor, the aquatic vessel comfortably converts into a boundless arena.

To Underwater’s credit, it takes a while for its drenched beasts to wholly take form on the screen. Before it becomes a full-on monster movie, Underwater is a cramped and claustrophobic experience, buoyed by the comradery and teamwork of its survivors. Joining Norah as she tries to navigate through an assembly of broken compartments and hallways, whose weakened structure is doing its best to ward off eight tons of pressure, are a group of characters played by Vincent Cassel, Mamoudou Athie, John Gallagher Jr., Jessica Henwick and Deadpool’s T.J. Miller.

Though most of the supporting cast – with specific nods to Cassel and Henwick – does their part in helping Stewart establish the immediacy of the situation, the characters themselves are a constant source of weakness for the film. Brian Duffield and Adam Cozad’s screenplay tacks on too many back stories in an attempt to heighten the emotional stakes, and both the writers and Eubank clearly put too much stock into Miller’s comedic endurance.

Also, while the film does conjure dramatic pathways for its heroes, they are never intercepted by an intriguing conflict. Though it can be argued that the strenuous nature of the predicament – and not to mention the cramped foundation of their surroundings – would bring this pack closer together, their unity in cause, method, and execution makes for a rather flat set of onscreen companions. The primary appeal may rest on its monsters, but Underwater, in spending as much time with these crew members as it does, misses a great opportunity to explore the internal battles and soulful motives this kind of stress would surely create.

That opportunity was taken by films like Alien and Neil Marshall’s cave-set thriller The Descent, two movies with clear ties to Underwater. All three also touch on the predatory nature of the unknown and bring forth the question in valuing its exposure. Out of the three productions, Underwater handles this theme the most directly and the least effectively. But at least it’s there, and paired with the film’s visual merits, Underwater is, without a doubt, a better-than-average monster movie.

by Luke Parker

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