“We drilled to deep, took too much. And now she’s taking it all back.”
I can wholeheartedly state that starting my 2020 theatre experience with William Eubank‘s claustrophobic sci-fi thriller, Underwater, was a grand success. Led by one of the best working actresses and personal favorites, Kristen Stewart, Underwater is marketed as a sort of layman’s Alien but set…underwater. I’d like to begin by tempering down some hype by saying that comparing such films to heralded classics never helps a lot. A far more appropriate comparison can be seen from what I initially experienced seeing this trailer last year, that this was more of a Sphere, Sunshine, Pandorum, Event Horizon, and Life, or hopeful baby-steps into getting our deserved Dead Space film adaptation. Underwater is a lightly ecological, brutal, quickly paced, out of breath, frenetic struggle to grasp for air, encapsulated into a rare original concept B-movie we seldom receive nowadays. To tease any of those interested, may I even hint that it borders the trench of almost becoming Lovecraftian…
Underwater follows a group of researchers and nautical crew members of an underwater drilling station, set “7 miles beneath the ocean’s surface,” more accurately within the notorious Mariana Trench. When something unknown compromises the safety of the enormous big corporate funded station, this small but determined crew must suit up and brave the watery abyss and whatever may be lurking out there. Little known fact: Underwater was supposedly originally planned to be released three years ago. I vividly recall my hype steadily growing as more casting news was announced within months. Starting with Kristen Stewart’s involvement, followed by Jessica Henwick (the best part of Netflix’s Iron Fist), then a welcomed John Gallagher Jr. and Vincent Cassel. To round up my excitement Gunner Wright, who voices the Dead Space protagonist, Isaac Clarke, even joined. For unknown reasons, but more than likely T.J. Miller-related, the film submerged out of sight until now. I have yet to see 2014’s The Signal, but with a cast that includes Olivia Cooke, Lin Shaye, and Laurence Fishburne, things seemed promising for William Eubank. Underwater is his junior effort, and by far his most expensive and expansive, both in star power and effects.
This film had quite a surprisingly large budget, set at $80 million, which is a massive leap from Eubank’s previous film, The Signal, which was $4 million. I applaud the efforts placed to release a film that is more than likely destined to drown at the box office, yet undoubtedly appeal to the fans of these long gone 90ish minute creature-features. The film industry follows quite the linear path; the studios see potential talent from an indie director and (sometimes blindly) reward said filmmakers with a blank check and a myriad of studio mandates and revisions to their once unique vision. Prime example, look at Colin Trevorrow pole-vaulting from Safety Not Guaranteed‘s $750,000 to Jurassic World‘s $150 million. I’m sure the same does not occur to every single director, but I’d argue the majority of the time, that spark you see in their low budget indie debut is never fully realised in their grandiose follow up. But hey, that’s how they make the money to fund their own dreams and maybe even support their families and friends. On the opposite side of the coin, one could see how Ryan Coogler maintained his skill and keen eye from Fruitvale Station‘s $900,000 to Creed‘s shockingly low $35 million. It varies, but the trend I posit withstands. Unfortunately I doubt Underwater will recuperate it’s budget, unless very successful in Asian markets, but I’d love for Eubank to be given more checks to create these original yet heavily influenced thrillers.
In full transparency, I’ll gladly accept that I have a bias to these types of films. Place characters within isolated, confined spaces (most likely submerged or in space), and plague them with nearly impossible odds to achieve survival, and I’m there! A locked-room thriller, a derelict space station beacon luring in unwary engineers to the rescue, an untimely visit to a lonesome cabin in the woods with friends, you name it. Even the worst claustrophobic horror/thrillers typically offer more entertainment than any other genre. I’m a big fan of the previously mentioned Sunshine, Life, and Pandorum. There’s something about being trapped in a location with no escape, the flashing red strobes reflecting across your helmet, the alarms blaring your impending doom, and someone or something hunting you down. Underwater isn’t trying to rebrand the industry or become the next best thing in the genre, but its unapologetic abrasiveness to a serious tone despite its sci-fi horror leaning is admirable. Every character is committed to their designated yet cliché role, but as expected Kristen Stewart easily raises the quality when on screen. The cast is relegated to archetypes we know very well, the everyday Joe, the talented and innocent doe-eyed youngster, the grizzled veteran, the comedic relief, the token, and the audience stand-in. Kristen Stewart continues to prove her versatility, capable of almost any role, whether it be the dramatic chops of a French Cesar award winning Olivier Assayas film, the comedy of Charlie’s Angels, or the confined thrills of a David Fincher film. One key mood she has perfect among many, is the introverted anxiety that she so effortlessly manages to exude through her often hunched body language, darting eyes, and energetic pacing. Her role as cynical mechanical engineer Norah is nothing short of entertaining to follow along with for 95 mostly tense minutes.
You’re not going (into) Underwater for the acting, so let me tell you what you will be in store for. The first act is genuinely gripping, managing to achieve a solid 30-45 minutes of intense adrenaline inducing suspense. I do think that the film does degrade the more it progresses, particularly when it attempts to give its characters any more depth than a kiddie pool, but for the most part manages to maintain a layer of unease. When it embodies its more fantastical appeals to our imaginative fears of the depths, it works, but when it struggles with some momentary character development it get a bit bogged down. The narrative could have easily functioned as a straight survival thriller against mother nature and human psychosis, just as well, if not even better than the Lovecraftian horror it leans into. Again, I was fully with the end product we were given, but I can see some viewers having wished the film went for a more natural approach. The CGI is not bad at all, never taking me out of the moment, showcasing some cool creature design accompanied by excellent practical mech suits that strongly reminded me of Gears of War.
The benefit is that 2020’s Underwater, not to be mistaken by the 50s Jane Russell film, is that it’s fast-paced and relentless in its plot and editing. Like a rag doll thrust into a pressure chamber, your flung from one well crafted special effects reliant set piece to another, with little to no time to catch your breath. The exposition is bare minimum to keep the plot going, and just as it tries to ground the human side, it contradicts itself by embracing the monstrous. There is a specific scene where I sincerely just moved to the edge of my seat with my jaw dropped. I didn’t expect it, but it was fully welcomed! This is 100% my type of film, but I strongly believe that it has at least some inkling of intrigue for anyone at all interested by the marketing or just by the beast that is Kristen Stewart. I for one have started 2020 with a roaring current in the right direction. I strongly recommend Underwater, a very fun time with a brisk runtime that’ll fly by in less time than it takes for you to decide what you’d watch on Netflix at home. After all, “On the ocean floor, you lose all sense of time.”
B Review alien colin trevorrow creed david fincher event horizon fruitvale station gunner wright isaac clarke jane russell jessica henwick john gallagher jr. jurassic world kristen stewart laurence fishburne life lin shaye olivia cooke olivier assayas pandorum safety not guaranteed sphere sunshine t.j. miller the signal underwater vincent cassel william eubank
Film Studies/History graduate, using my love and knowledge of the medium to pass as a critic. I’m typically known for longer write-ups, and my eclectic taste ranging from awards darlings, European filmé, indie spirits, cinematic universes, and most notably 80s cult films. Hope you’ve enjoyed your visit, and remember, watch whatever, whenever, with whomever.