Underwater takes the tension of Ridley Scott’s Alien to the bottom of the ocean, to good effect.
Sometimes being called a genre film is not a dirty word. Plenty of able and entertaining horror and science fiction flicks happily work within the confines of a well-worn genre. Underwater is one of those flicks. While you can definitely tell it’s a cover song, it manages to hit all of the notes.
The Tian corporation hopes to revolutionize energy production by mining geothermal vents at the bottom of the sea. A sprawling mega-structure with a skeleton crew operates under the enormous physical and psychological pressures of the ocean floor. Predictably, something goes wrong.
Young engineer Norah (Kristen Stewart) manages to escape the epicenter of the collapsing rig. Gathering survivors along the way, she struggles to get them to the nearest evacuation zone, which lies a mile away across the increasingly hazardous structure.
Stating the Obvious.
Underwater does very little to hide its inspiration by Ridley Scott’s Alien. A shady mega-corporation engaged in dubious business, a small group of miners and scientists isolated in a pitch black environment, a mysterious creature. Even Stewart’s look is crafted to call back to Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley from Aliens 3. The movie is not subtle about it.
The film also pays homage to other deep sea disaster flicks, notably The Abyss. You could probably line up a rogue’s gallery of other films with a very similar set-up and premise, which is to say you’re clearly dealing with a genre flick. That’s not necessarily bad.
When mining familiar material as Underwater does, you have two options: play to expectations or break with them. Underwater opts to play the imitation game, looking to hit its beats so well that you don’t mind the deja vu. Director William Eubank accomplishes this with meticulous attention to pacing. The film moves briskly from element to element, slowing down at appropriate moments for development or tension building, pressing the accelerator when it’s time for action.
Eubanks also makes some risky decisions with his editing. Several sequences end with abrupt cuts. After navigating a hurdle, our protagonists lay out a plan for the next leg of the journey, then we get a hard cut to the next stage already in progress. It can be disconcerting, but by repetition, Eubanks desensitizes you to the jarring nature of it, allowing its real intent to become clear: by denying you falling action and conclusion, each segment feels like constant rising action punctuated by climaxes.
Cracks in the Glass.
Underwater does have noticeable flaws. The opening credits gives away a bit too much through flashes of news clippings about the Tian corporation and the mining facility. The film head-fakes an unreliable narrator component – is Norah suffering from psychosis caused by isolation, are these events really happening? – which never amounts to anything. Like Robert Egger’s The Witch, I wish there was more commitment to ambiguity. Having characters isolated and mentally vulnerable lets you shade events to have more complexity. This is really important in a “hidden monster” movie.
The monsters in Underwater are fine, if vague. There’s a few symbols littered around that hint that what we’re seeing calls back to some mythology, but it’s hardly built up. There’s even some Lovecraftian moments, but they are mostly aesthetic choices instead of overt lore. In the end, all you need to know is that these suckers lurk in the darkness and are good at killing.
Underwater won’t blow any minds with its world and premise, but it works as a horror/thriller. The cast is solid. The setting is memorable and well designed. The visuals mostly look great, though some of the creatures are hit and miss. The rock-solid pacing and varied set-pieces keep you engaged where a familiar story or lack of depth might lose you. For fans of the genre, Underwater acquits itself ably despite not breaking the mold.