Updated: Feb 9, 2020
Alien was released over forty years ago and is still influencing horror movies today. The latest homage (or imitation, if you would prefer) is Underwater, which transplants the formula six miles into the ocean. It was filmed back in 2017, then sat on the shelf due to the Disney-Fox merger before being dumped into theaters in January 2020. That description makes it sound like a disaster, but it should be fine enough for fans of this type of thing. It is a competent entry in the “group of people stuck in a small space with a murderous creature and picked off one by one” subgenre. It sacrifices character and story in favor of some impressive visuals and a focus on the challenges unique to their circumstances. It is nothing to get too excited about, but is an okay thriller.
A large crew is drilling at the bottom of the ocean. A series of tremors destroys their base, leaving only six survivors. As they plan their escape, they discover something dangerous is lurking outside.
When I say it sacrifices character, I am not exaggerating. We learn very little about anyone. They barely even get traits to play. They are nothing more than potential victims. Since Underwater also does not linger on story details, I suppose character was superfluous. We are not expected to care about them, just to be thrilled by their scary predicament. Kristen Stewart does alright as the ensemble’s lead, however this is about style, not substance. Who they are is irrelevant. This is more interested in what happens to them and how they react. It is a movie that knows exactly what it is and does not get distracted by stuff like plot or personality. It is dark, empty, corridors, flashing lights, murky water and a deadly threat. While those things are unoriginal, they are at least done fairly well here.
Director William Eubank creates a dark and menacing mood. Visibility is intentionally low, bringing a feeling of claustrophobia even when the characters are outside of the station. It is almost otherworldly, taking place on Earth, but in an area we are unfamiliar with. The noises in the station (when it is not falling apart) are intermittent and unsettling. The moments of silence, when we watch Kristen Stewart try to think her way out of certain death, are the most terrifying (it is also the closest we get to character work). Eubank makes effective use of this world with scarce setup. Underwater opens with the first of many explosions and keeps on running from there.
Eubank uses the majority of his 91 minutes (without the end credits) for thrills and scares. I did not actually find it scary, but the atmosphere does hold up during the monster attacks. He also knew precisely when to end it, not giving us a fake climax or an epilogue. He sets up the situation (a small group of people on a collapsing underwater base), their goal (escape) and the life-threatening complication (the mystery creature) very efficiently. Then he gives us as many variations as he can on the surprise attack and desperate rescue. It is highly unlikely this will be talked about in forty years yet, for an hour and a half in a multiplex in January, it does the trick. Underwater will not show you anything you have not seen before, though it treads familiar ground in a skillful way.
3 out of 5
Kristen Stewart as Norah
Vincent Cassel as Captain
T.J. Miller as Paul
Jessica Henwick as Emily
John Gallagher Jr. as Smith
Mamoudou Athie as Rodrigo
Directed by William Eubank
Screenplay by Brian Duffield and Adam Cozad