Film Review – Underwater (Second Take)
January is usually the month that film studios drop their supposed film duds. When a film has a January release date, the eyebrows go up. Underwater completed filming in 2017. It is possible that 20th Century Fox’s sale to Disney had something to do with the delay. Regardless of the reasons, the film has now seen the light of day (figuratively speaking because there is no daylight in it), and audiences are going to determine if it is a January stinker.
There is no backstory or lead up to the disaster that starts the race for survival in Underwater. There are newspaper clippings through the opening credits that inform about the setting. That setting is a massive underwater drill and complex run by Kepler. It’s seven miles down, and the deepest the earth’s floor has ever been drilled. Cut to Norah (Kristen Stewart) brushing her teeth in the community bathroom. No one else can be seen, but the audience is told that over 300 people are living around this drill operation. Norah has an inner monologue going, lamenting a lost love. Flickering lights and rumbles are not normal as she becomes more concerned about their occurrences. She steps out into the hall, water hits her face, and then the deluge happens. She runs for her life, meeting Rodrigo (Mamoudou Athie) along the way. It is apparent immediately that Norah is familiar with the computer system and can get the doors working again to save her and Rodrigo’s lives. Along the way to the central command of the drill, the pair meet up with a buried and then freed Paul (T.J. Miller), the Captain, Lucien (Vincent Cassel), research tech Emily (Jessica Henwick), and fellow computer engineer and Norah’s close friend Liam (John Gallagher Jr.). Together, they come up with a plan to reach safety and then eventually the surface via escape pods.
While this film appears to be like every other survival film out there, the added life-threatening element of being surrounded by high-pressure water ups the suspense and anxiety. If being in this sort of situation makes you nervous or claustrophobic, Underwater is not going help, and it is not going to be a fun time. Much like space films, underwater films heighten the risk of death because there is no way you can survive in the exterior environment. With the film being set so far down in the ocean, the increased water pressure adds more danger to the situation. One crack in your suit and you are a goner.
Underwater has a science fiction element to it that may be unexpected. While the survivors initially think an earthquake compromised the drilling operation, it becomes apparent after the first third of the film that they are not alone. There are alien-like things that are hunting them, although their motives are unclear. With the addition of these things, the jump-scares are in effect and they got every single person in my screening. These underwater aliens are unnerving and some of their attacks are gruesome and frightening enough that I did not even watch the film during these moments, knowing what was coming. The one thing that bothered me about all of these creatures were their eyes. Why did they have them? There is no light where they live and we are made to believe they can see the light by the survivors turning their lights off while in the water to go undetected.
Underwater should be praised for using two women as heroes in different situations. Both Norah and Emily are not strong in the muscular sense, and they are certainly not calm in this environment, but they both rise above their situations and help others in spite of themselves. Norah is the main character, so we see the story unfold from her perspective mostly. Considering the bulk of the film is CGI, I must give major kudos to Kristen Stewart for accurately terrified facetime that informed the audience about just how bad of a situation they all are in.
J.T. Miller is the comedic savior of the film. It is possible this film was also delayed because of Miller’s personal issues that came to light recently in the #MeToo movement. While his personal history was in the back of my mind, Miller’s Paul lightened the tense mood of the film and had some of the best lines. He had to have survived the initial structural collapse of the base by sheer luck because he is cuckoo for cocoa puffs.
Underwater will inevitably be compared to other films because it is not unique. My initial thoughts were that it is Alien meets The Abyss meets Godzilla: King of Monsters. The climax was over the top and had the story not taken a turn towards the Godzilla variety; it would be a better film. Sometimes I think screenwriters and directors get too cocky about their stories and take them one step too far and this would be the case with Underwater. It is a much better film than as I had pre-judged it, but it still has its flaws and suspensions of disbelief to contend with to make it a stronger film. If you love any of the films that I compared Underwater to, see it because you will probably enjoy parts of it. Had there been a better script, Underwater could have been a great summer flick, but it is now stuck in the January dump.