Underwater

2020 | rated PG-13 | starring Kristen Stewart, Vincent Cassell, TJ Miller, John Gallagher Jr., Jessica Henwick | directed by William Eubank | 1 hr 35 mins |

Miles below the ocean, at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, the skeleton crew living in a deep sea oil drilling habitat struggle to survive after an underwater earthquake damages most of the facility and forces it’s engineer (Kristen Stewart) and captain (Vincent Cassell) to lead a group across the ocean floor only to be confronted with viscous sea monsters at every turn.

The trope-filled plotting that puts together Underwater is so dull and cookie-cutter that I started to imagine the story behind the story. I’m going to speculate that it is a studio audition film for director William Eubank who rose into Hollywood’s line of sight for the clever, indie 2014 sci-fi film The Signal (and the 2nd best indie sci-fi movie named The Signal).  It has a good cast of names, a larger budget, a tight minimalist script that starts when the action does and fulfills a horror movie quota in an empty January release slot. “If you can bring this in on time and under budget, you can go to the big leagues kid” said some cigar-chomping studio executive in some hotel-room meeting. “You’ll get that Marvel audition!”. Eubanks does the job here. He makes something straight-forward, competent, tonally consistent film that builds to it’s best stuff in the third act.  Still, it also did not for a second scratch an itch I had for a monster movie or a disaster movie and it has no unique personality of it’s own.

Underwater is both too serious to be fun and not dire enough to make for a real Alien-esque heart-pounder. That’s saying something for a scenario that should be a nightmare: characters trapped in the bottom of the ocean without oxygen hunted by monsters. The movie never develops it’s characters into people we can relate to or develops set pieces that we haven’t seen people easily die or get out from many times before. It’s a cliché itself to say that this kind of confined monster movie takes from Alien, but Underwater even goes down to some of the specific Alien story beats (at one point having the crew venture out of the ship, bringing back a specimen). The movie name checks some of it’s inspirations, The Poseidon Adventure and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea to be high-brow, but it feels more like Resident Evil – group of people trapped in a large, secret facility walking from point A to point B on a map.

I’m always interested to see what type of genre movie Kristen Stewart shows up in. Notorious for not giving a damn about stuff she doesn’t respect, Stewart is oddly engaged in this movie. It’s unclear why she or intense French veteran Vincent Cassell (who isn’t engaged as much as cashing a paycheck) saw in this project. Also donning insane Gears of War military looking dive-suits for the underwater action is John Gallagher Jr. as a non-entity in the damsel-in-distress role and TJ Miller (pre-bomb threat issuing) as the most stock of stock insufferable “comic relief” characters. Horror movies have a trope that refers to gentleman of a particular race dying in a particular order among the cast that is wildly overblown and rarely seen. Underwater does that trope for the first time I’ve seen in it over 20 years.

Save for the third act, which evolves into a Lovecraftian level of epic monster movie I was into for the very brief period we get it, Underwater looks miserable. It’s visually drab, dark and washed out in a way that just looks ugly. The lived-in look of the habitat is kind of nice and I’d like to have gotten a better sense of their lives down there before the action but so much of the movie is low-lit scenes of characters walking across the ocean floor shot from inside helmets trying to give us a sense of claustrophobia. As many problems as I have with The Meg (a movie with the same premise), at least that didn’t look and feel oppressively bland. Eubanks gives the film neither an intensity or a unique take. Except for Kristen Stewart getting to flex some monster-fighting muscles – there is nothing in Underwater you haven’t seen a thousand times before in maybe more flawed but more interesting ways.

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