Underwater (United States, 2020)

January 10, 2020
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Underwater Poster

Underwater is all adrenaline and claustrophobia – a 95-minute non-stop excursion to the bottom of the sea where human beings are aliens and monstrous creatures haunt the depths. Director William Eubank (The Signal) understands that for a movie like this to work, it’s necessary to maintain a breakneck pace and, to that end, he rarely pauses and, when he does, it’s not for long. For that reason, even the characters with the most screen time are (at best) slightly developed – there’s just enough humanity for us to be interested in whether they survive, although any emotional attachment is minimal.

At times, it almost seems as if Eubank is doing an homage to James Cameron’s Greatest Hits. There’s a little Titanic here to go along with significant chunks of Aliens and The Abyss. Originality isn’t the director’s aim (which is a good thing because there’s not much of that to be found). Instead, he borrows liberally from better films and stitches the results into a movie that will keep viewers white-knuckled and leave them somewhat exhausted by the relentless pace.

he movie explodes onto the screen with great economy, wasting little time with getting-to-know-the-characters scenes. The action transpires on a deep sea drilling rig anchored in the Mariana Trench, seven miles below sea level. Like a space station, the quarters are spartan and the crew can only go outside wearing bulky suits that protect against the pressure and temperature extremes while providing oxygen. Moments after we’re introduced to Norah (Kristen Stewart) while she’s brushing her teeth, all hell breaks loose. The station begins alternatively exploding and imploding and, by the time the six survivors are gathered together in one of the few intact areas, it’s clear that they’re in a very bad situation. The captain (Vincent Cassel) rallies his troops. In addition to Norah, he has one woman (Jessica Henwick) and three men (T.J. Miller, John Gallagher Jr., and Mamoudou Athie) at his disposal. Time to start playing the time-honored game in movies like this: guess the order in which the characters die.

Survival demands getting into escape pods. Unfortunately, the ones in the main station have already been launched. But wait! There’s another option, only it requires dangerous journey across the ocean floor and into the nest of whatever creatures are causing the havoc. Underwater unfold in real-time as these six intrepid crew members (at least at the start) try to make it from Point A to Point B before (a) their air runs out, (b) the monsters get them, or (c) something blows up bigger than a Michael Bay explosion.

Kristen Stewart, often a much better actress than she’s given credit for being (appearing in three Twilight films did irreparable damage to her reputation), singlehandedly sells the movie. We know almost nothing about Norah besides a few minor background details but Stewart presents a woman who is strong and resilient yet obvious scared shitless by the situation in which she finds herself. She’s Sigourney Weaver from the first Alien right down to the skimpy skivvies. Vincent Cassel, an actor who freely mixes hifalutin’ indie fare with B-movie dreck, brings an air of competency to his role as the captain. T.J. Miller is the resident clown, seemingly channeling Bill Paxton’s Hudson from Aliens. Character actors Jessica Henwick, John Gallagher Jr., and Mamoudou Athie fill out the roster. The throbbing Marco Beltrami/Brandon Roberts score is almost a character in its own right.

The special effects are generally solid, with the murky nature of the underwater scenes obscuring any hiccups in the CGI. There are times when the action becomes confusing but that’s par for the course when having characters running, tripping, spinning, and flailing around at Jules Verne depths. In terms of rhythm and intent, the movie reminded me a little of last year’s Crawl, an unpretentious thriller that didn’t try to do too much and mostly achieved its modest goals. Underwater will likely satisfy audiences who go in with appropriately established expectations because, for what it is, the film is solidly entertaining.

Underwater (United States, 2020)

Director: William Eubank
Cast: Kristen Stewart, Jessica Henwick, Vincent Cassel, T.J. Miller, John Gallagher Jr., Mamoudou Athie
Home Release Date: 2020-04-14
Screenplay: Brian Duffield and Adam Cozad
Cinematography: Bojan Bazelli
Music: Marco Beltrami, Brandon Roberts
U.S. Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Run Time: 1:35
U.S. Release Date: 2020-01-10
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Gore, Profanity)
Genre: Sci-Fi/Thriller
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1