A Struggle to Care About Characters in the Deep
While we often venture outside of Earth’s atmosphere for the unsettling unknown in horror films, the exploration of the frontiers at the ocean floor gets much less play, despite offering just as many perils and the potential for scary creatures. The oceans hold unimaginable terrors beyond the current reach of human exploration, even if we’re just talking about fucked-up-looking fish with dead eyes and sharp teeth. Underwater hopes to fill this void as a sci-fi horror romp with Lovecraftian ambitions, but ends up with more of a modern B-movie result.
UNDERWATER ★★ (2/5 stars)
Directed by: William Eubank
Written by: Brian Duffield and Adam Cozad
Starring: Kristen Stewart, Vincent Cassel, Jessica Henwick, and T.J. Miller
Running time: 95 min
Director William Eubank (The Signal) and writers Brian Duffield (Insurgent) and Adam Cozad (The Legend of Tarzan) deliver a film that zooms past exposition, laid out in newspaper clippings in the opening title sequence, to get us straight to the action. It comes at the cost of developing much affinity for the audience towards the characters. These filmmakers desperately want to build their world with as little effort as possible so they can pump out sequels.
The shining light in the abyss of all of this is Kristen Stewart’s gritty modern Ripley performance as mechanical engineer Norah. Stewart has been an indie darling since Personal Shopper. Her committed performance here, approaching the physicality of Sandra Bullock in Gravity, will further endear her to the genre crowd.
The action in Underwater kicks off with a major breach in a drilling vessel six miles deep in the Marianas Trench. Norah manages to escape the collapsing part of the facility and seal it off to save herself and some colleagues before they reconnect with their captain (Vincent Cassel). There are no more escape pods to the surface, so their only recourse is a long walk along the ocean floor in their pressurized suits to the nearest drilling laboratory in hopes they can escape from there.
What’s odd about Underwater is that this premise alone is probably enough to build adequate tension and atmosphere, but then the film introduces us to the real source of all the destruction. Various strange sea creatures that range in appearance from chestburster octopi to Cloverfield wendigos aren’t happy about the encroachment into their domain. They wreak havoc on the crew’s escape plans, but only enough to draw this thing out to a runtime of 95 minutes. For some reason they don’t go in for the kill as often as entrenched creatures probably would against a slow-moving invasive species.
While debatably unnecessary, the Lovecraftian element of humans treading where they don’t belong and awakening an ancient evil makes sense for the setting and is welcome. What isn’t welcome is T.J. Miller as a bizarre crew member with his incessant talkative softie asshole schtick. I wish this film had used CGI to de-age Miller until he no longer existed.
To that end, this film struggles to decide how seriously it should take itself. Some of the best moments are when people straight up implode and the film leans into the schlock with tiny bits of the person floating around and the resident snowflake crewmember shrieking comically. The rest of the time it’s Stewart’s badassery and Cassel’s reassurance being interrupted by Miller’s attempts at levity.
Uneven tone, absentee monsters, and lack of character development sink this one despite the best efforts of Stewart and Cassel. We could do much worse for wet Alien, but I hope that maybe we can also do better the next time we venture into the frightening dark reaches of the sea.