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'Underwater' Review: So-so aquatic disaster flick is a true January doldrums release

The latest entry into the "Alien" subgenre occasionally tries to break out of its cliches, but also can't get all the basic thrills right.
Credit: Courtesy / 20th Century Fox

The lights start their ominous flickering early in “Underwater,” and – as suggested by the movie’s 90-minute runtime – the bursting walls of a claustrophobic ocean-drilling facility follows shortly after, sending Kristen Stewart scurrying for her life through flooded corridors in horrifically dark ocean depths just as we’ve settled into our seats. 

There’s no mistaking the caliber of B-movie rush that director William Eubank’s aquatic disaster-sci-fi-horror-drama (got all that?) is shooting for, and in certain moments the director of 2014’s “The Signal” even finds them—frantic brushes with shadowed deep-sea monsters are balanced by excessively melodramatic attempts to make characters feel like more than the tropes that they are, all in the name of cinema that seeks to be more viscerally enthralling than thematically engaging. 

You’ll know exactly what you’re getting into if you buy a ticket to “Underwater,” to the point where you can make a game out of it. Bring along your Bingo cards filled with the requisite clichés; the movie is sure to hit most of them! Foreboding mechanical creaks and organic groans haunting our protagonists; an iron-voiced captain/commander who won’t survive, but won’t go down without a fight; the fleeting moments of wonder at how exorbitantly huge the movie is willing to all-too-briefly go in its climax, as if suddenly thinking itself unworthy of such immense, Lovecraftian scale. “Underwater” is the kind of movie that wouldn’t have made sense coming out anytime other than mid-January—we’ve seen all the major Oscar contenders by this point, but I suppose it's nice to have something new to take in while getting through this dead zone and to the actual ceremony. 

Then again, is anything about "Underwater" even new? Ridley Scott practically birthed the subgenre Eubank's flick is proudly a part of with the release of “Alien” more than four decades ago, and it’s a category of film that makes it easy to swap in and swap out gently-used parts – Mad Libs-style – for settings, creature design and final acts of desperation in the name of originality. Eubank’s movie isn’t part of any existing franchise, nor is the story adapted from one, but “Underwater” is a film that proves there’s degrees of originality—it’s been some time since I last saw an aquatic horror, yet this haunted Mariana Trench adventure boasts fewer new ideas than there are groan-worthy one-liners from wisecracker T.J. Miller. Not that Eubank or the movie’s screenwriters – Brian Duffield and Adam Cozad – care much. 

For a time, I found myself not caring much either, appreciating the film’s brisk pace and Eubank’s unwavering devotion to an enticingly grimy visual aesthetic, if never totally investing myself in the plight of Stewart’s mechanical engineer-turned-hardened-survivor Norah beyond her adequately anxious performance. As things go to hell all around, Norah links up with scant few other survivors of the massive drilling rig she’s stationed at, and the crew hatch a do-or-die plan to dive deeper and cross the ocean floor in massive mech suits, towards functioning escape pods at another rig. To reach salvation on land, it seems, they must go deeper—I bet the screenwriters popped a cold one after coming up with that one. 

The efforts that “Underwater” takes to seriously flesh outs its characters are minimal, their motivations extending to creating prey for the movie’s mysterious toothed ghouls to glide in and get our hearts pumping. It’s impossible to say we ever really know Jessica Henwick’s Emily, John Gallagher Jr’s Smith and Mamoudou Athie’s Rodrigo when we see them almost exclusively within the context of an unthinkable life-or-death situation; for all the “Alien” inspirations at hand, there’s no casual morning breakfasts where our gang just sits around and act like humans. Heck, Vincent Cassel’s gutsy leader is only ever identified as “Captain"...or perhaps it was "Commander"? 

Emily occasionally reflects real – and timely – guilt about bruising the Earth one too many times in the name of profit (“We took too much, now she’s taking back,” she says), but those environmental sentiments are barely explored. 

The exception, to a point, is Norah, who Duffield and Cozad write with shades of pessimism not often glimpsed in these kinds of rock-em-sock-em movies. “There’s a comfort to cynicism,” she tells us early on via (misguided) voiceover, informing us that while we expect her to confront whatever horrors await over the next hour and a half, she’s not fighting her way to something miles above her so much as fighting for control of an apocalyptic situation against all odds. Stewart is, for the most part, pretty good with what she has to work with in “Underwater,” and she makes it easy to believe in her survivalist mentality when she contorts her face into restrained anguish. 

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Which makes it unavoidably frustrating when the narrative reaches its lowest common denominator of audience expectations—that is, the crew’s death-defying ocean-floor treks, submerged in blinding darkness that makes spontaneous creature sightings and jump-scares more annoying than suspenseful. It’s a cheap kind of horror that “Underwater” utilizes in these scenes – we couldn’t possibly see what’s about to happen because we can’t see anything – and it doesn’t help when we’re made confused about which crew member is on death’s throes at any given moment. I can appreciate the idea of making the viewer feel as cornered as its characters. I can’t appreciate it in practice here, not when these are precisely the sequences people go to movies like “Underwater” for. 

The screenplay’s determination to manifest some nihilistic energy (largely through Norah) to pair with the visual bleakness of the oceanic ultradepths began to remind me of 2017’s “Life” – a similar “Alien”-inspired creature feature, though set in space and more triumphant in creating a sense of sheer morbidity through mood – but it ultimately betrays itself with an ending that felt a bit too saccharine for my tastes. That’s not a problem in itself (I’m not a dark-hearted movie-watcher) but the way it’s executed feels jarringly at odds with everything that comes before. Imagine if “Cloverfield”—a movie that ends with our camera-touting protagonists being blown to smithereens with nary a musical note to soften the shock of finality—had instead culminated with them triumphantly facing down the monster haunting them to the tune of Linkin Park. "Underwater's" ending simply feels shoehorned in from something else entirely, to disappointing effect.

"Underwater" is rated PG-13 for sci-fi action and terror, and brief strong language

Starring: Kristen Stewart, Jessica Henwick, T.J. Miller, Vincent Cassel

Directed by William Eubank