I spent most of director William Eubank’s (The Signal) newest film, Underwater, on the verge of really liking it, waiting for that one original element to push me over the line from “this is passable” to “this is pretty good.” Sadly, that moment never happened, and I left the film mildly disappointed despite yet another better-than-the-film-deserves performance from Kristen Stewart playing Norah, a mechanical engineer working miles below the ocean’s surface on an underwater lab in search of new sources of oil.
I’ll give Underwater credit where it’s due: it doesn’t waste a second getting right to the action. Almost from the first scene, the entire facility breaks (or is broken) apart, seemingly from violent tremors that cause water to come rushing in. Norah barely makes it into a sealed-off area with a co-worker (Mamoudou Athie), and they decide that the best course of action is to make it to a series of escape pods. Along the way, they find another co-worker (T.J. Miller, ugh), as well as their captain (Vincent Cassel). The interesting thing about these survivors and their quest to make it somewhere where they can escape to the surface is that they are all meant to be intelligent; there are no grunts who make emotional or ill-advised decisions. Almost every move is calculated, probably the best course of action, and highly likely to fail, but still worth it. That doesn’t stop Miller from cracking dumb jokes, but what can?
Eubank, a noted indie cinematographer before turning to filmmaking, gives Underwater a dark, murky quality that I feared might make things difficult to see, but for the most part, some well-placed lighting throughout the structure as well as in the diving suits the characters wear helps keep the action fairly clear. After finding two more survivors (John Gallagher Jr. and Jessica Henwick), the group begins to understand that their lab was destroyed by something living deep under the ocean that was possibly set loose during the digging process. There’s a great deal of theorizing, but I liked that we never really know what these creatures are and where they come from. There are moments here that are clearly lifted from two much better films—Ridley Scott’s Alien and James Cameron’s The Abyss. I’m a firm believer that if you’re going to steal, then steal from the best—and Eubank has done just that.
As the relatively short film moves forward briskly, crew members get picked off or sacrifice themselves for the group, with Stewart basically leading the charge from safe place to safe place. The creature design of the attackers is fairly solid, although they’re basically just versions of the Creature from the Black Lagoon with more teeth (see my comment earlier about stealing from the best).
Stewart has become such a good performer that you immediately start looking at her various characters to see what about them appealed to her. Even if the final movie is no good, she stands out as putting forth maximum effort and pulling us into the intensity of every moment her character inhabits. As a result, Underwater actually manages to pull off a handful of genuinely tense and scary sequences primarily because the acting from Stewart and the rest of the cast is honest and goes a long way to include the audience in their fear of both external forces (monsters) and the crumbling structure around them. On top of that, there’s a final-act reveal regarding the creatures that is beyond wonderful, even if it’s slightly outrageous.
The resulting work succeeds maybe a little bit more than it doesn’t, and I found myself engaged with and caring about these characters just enough to want to see them live, which has got to count for something.
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