Film Review – Underwater
It’s rare for a film to start at the beginning of the second act. Normally, we are given some introductory scenes where we learn a little bit about our characters and their relationships. This is meant as a set up so that we understand what is at stake when things get bad. Underwater (2020) negates this entire section. In fact, the only introduction we get is of Kristen Stewart’s Norah, quietly brushing her teeth inside of an underwater research facility within the Mariana Trench, the deepest location in the world. Norah’s only character development is her willingness to save a small spider from drowning inside of a bathroom sink.
Before we can get our bearings, director William Eubank (along with screenwriters Brian Duffield and Adam Cozad) kick the narrative into overdrive. The station suddenly starts to the collapse within itself, water bursting from every corner, forcing Norah and her fellow crew members to rush about the hull trying to find a secure location to escape. Part of their plan has them putting on suits (that look more like space suits) and traversing the ocean floor. This seems like a pretty good idea, except for the fact that there are dangerous sea monsters lurking outside of the facility, ready to snatch them up at a moment’s notice.
There’s a B-movie quality in how Eubank and his team present the story. It’s straight forward – the team has to get from point A to point B while avoid death at every turn. Some will point out how Underwater resembles many other sci-fi/horror films of the past, namely Alien (1979), The Abyss (1989), or Leviathan (1989). The comparisons are apt. The construction of the base looks more like a rugged space station, and Stewart is clearly assigned to play this version’s Ellen Ripley.
Underwater is not nearly as good as those movies, though. While Eubank successfully injects nonstop energy from beginning to end, the whole piece ends up feeling empty. Perhaps the short running time (a brisk 95 minutes) doesn’t allow the narrative to open up and breathe. We learn next to nothing of the rest of the crew, other than Vincent Cassel being the stoic captain or that the prized possession of T.J. Miller’s character is his stuffed bunny. They are all hamstrung by needing to get from one location to the next. They are either crawling through debris, navigating through the water, or getting attacked by the monsters.
Now this isn’t really a bad thing. Often, the joy of B-movies is their lack of pretension – they simply want to entertain and be on their way. Underwater does offer some of that. Some of the best sequences have characters squeezing through tight spaces, fighting for oxygen, or being surrounded by oncoming danger. Shots from inside a person’s helmet provides a nice sense of confined space. There is palpable claustrophobia that only gets more intense as options for survival begin to dwindle. Stewart carries the material on her shoulders, utilizing her strong screen persona to guide us through the chaos. We experience the events with her, and she is more than capable of making us go through every emotional moment along the way.
But the biggest disappointment comes in the severe lack of visual clarity. I understand that the ocean floor is a dark place where light can barely shine, but the visuals are so muddy that it makes the onscreen action indecipherable. The characters wade through muck and grime, and all we can see is brown. I suppose this approach is meant to make us feel more tense, in a “fear of the unknown” sort of way, but the narrative doesn’t play it like that. There are clearly monsters out there to get these people, but the action scenes are so blurry that all I saw was swirling dirt. Whenever we move to within the base, the cinematography and editing devolves into the overly kinetic, strobe like style that’s more headache inducing than thrilling. I mean, how many flickering lights does an action scene really need?
There’s also an oddly exploitative subtext with the female characters. When everyone has to put on their massive, mech-like suits, of course they have to wear less clothing underneath. But where the male characters wear full body wetsuits, the women are stripped down to what is basically their underwear. This is especially true for Stewart, who runs around the final act wearing what is the equivalent of a handkerchief. Some might find this a benefit instead of a detriment, but in a movie about creatures attacking a crumbling base, titillation might not be the first thing that comes to mind in regard to survival.
Underwater has the makings of a great movie but doesn’t have the patience to let those elements blossom. It comes in, hangs out for a minute, and then quickly disappears. If that appeals to you, dear reader, then more power to you. If you’re looking for an experience that sticks with you and has some level of substance beyond simple escapism, you won’t find that here.