If you follow the movie business, you know that horror flicks usually get dumped in the first couple of weekends of a new year while everyone’s rushing to see the awards nominees and holiday blockbusters. There’s nothing wrong with that strategy; everybody knows that these producers have no faith in these properties. Imagine my surprise when I actually enjoyed one of these infamous quietly released films. Sure, low expectations lead to a positive result. Give me action, keep my heart racing and you win me over. Underwater borrows heavily from other classics and still forges its own path for a fun romp deep in the ocean.
You know going in that this is going to be a survival movie, a monster movie or some combination of both. Director William Eubank (The Signal) and writers Brian Duffield and Adam Cozad don’t sugarcoat the plot; they get right to the action and don’t let up until the credits roll. This may be the first time that half of the cast (only six people survive the initial mishap) appears above the title in the advertising. Norah (Kristen Stewart) hears rumblings at a drilling station nearly seven miles deep in the Mariana Trench just seconds before explosions occur as the station gets ripped apart. Barefoot a la Die Hard, Norah has no time to get dressed and runs for safety before she encounters Rodrigo (Mamoudou Athie). The two eventually meet up with Paul (T.J. Miller), Captain (Vincent Cassel), Emily (Jessica Henwick) and Smith (John Gallagher Jr.). Every scene involves one challenge or another as the group tries to make it to safety while something lurks just outside and follows them.
People love to hate Kristen Stewart, and I’m usually on the fence depending on the performance. Here, she’s in full Ripley mode as a strong heroine out to save everyone. With her platinum blonde buzz cut, she can’t play with her long hair as she usually does with that nervous habit of hers. Focused on the dangers around her, Stewart won me over. Cassel has so many great credits on his film résumé that you recognize him immediately even if you don’t remember from where. He embodies the leadership role with his commanding presence. Miller’s sardonic personality and humor infuse his characters in both live-action and animated films, and he brings the necessary humor to Underwater. The filmmakers also gave him tattoos, a stuffed bunny and a little bit of whining just like Bill Paxton in Aliens. Athie, Henwick and Gallagher Jr. also quickly establish their characters and make you feel for them, so it’s not clear who might die when things eventually take a turn for the worse.
Moviegoers will undoubtedly spout off a number of favorite genre films similar to Underwater, and that’s OK to do. I heard some people mention The Deep or The Abyss. Sure. Those fit. For me, the strongest comparison because of the water and the constant journey to safety was The Poseidon Adventure, still one of my favorites of all time. Underwater has that kind of pacing, plenty of water challenges and strong connection to the characters. You don’t want any of them to perish, yet you know that some will. From the perspective that none of these human beings should be drilling deep in the ocean, there are similarities to any entry in the long line of Godzilla titles. For the connections to monster movies, there are more than enough scenes lifted from The Descent (crawling through tight spaces), Alien (creatures of various forms just out of sight) and Aliens (mechanical suits and even a ride or two on transport vehicles).
The filmmakers could have easily skimped on the special effects and kept their cast inside for the running time. From an impressive opening shot that establishes how deep the operations are, the visual effects fit the location with murky external views and even more nebulous glimpses of the creatures. I’m sure that the cast got very wet while filming Underwater, but their walks outside the various stations use convincing digital effects as well as the suits. The intricate production design complements the effects. The detailed control room, stations and crew quarters look as lived in and worn as any drill rig or mining operations would be. Right from the start, the spooky and dramatic music by Marco Beltrami and Brandon Roberts lets you know that you’re in for a fun ride. The sound effects of the walls creaking and ungodly things wailing unsettle you at what should be quiet moments.
As with any movie, if you think about it long enough, you’ll easily find the holes in the plot or end product. This is science fiction, so you have to suspend disbelief to some extent. Still, some mistakes and other questionable things could have easily been explained away or at least addressed so that reviewers like me wouldn’t bring them up. If the pressure is so great at seven miles down, how can these characters walk around like they’re in a swimming pool when submersibles with thick hulls and glass are necessary for trips a fraction of the depth? Wouldn’t the all-important helmet glass be so thick or reinforced that it couldn’t crack so easily? How’d they build such a massive operation deep in the ocean anyway? Stewart narrates a little bit, but then it stops. Also, she keeps touching a necklace and mentions a boyfriend. I get the feeling that the movie was longer and they cut some of this background stuff about Norah to keep the pace. Great idea!
Although I don’t expect a sequel of any sort, I’d be happy to see some more collaboration by the director and writers on other horror or science fiction projects. Text on computer screens and newspaper clippings bookend the film nicely, so this gives the impression of one complete story. Enjoy it, remember it (or don’t) and move on. I can only hope that next January’s horror flicks deliver the fun, exciting, pure escapism of Underwater.