Film Reviews

Underwater: Better Than the Usual January Burnoff

On paper, Fox’s Underwater certainly seems like a classic example of the January burnoff, that thing Hollywood does where it uses the first month of the year to rid itself of old projects that just didn’t work out. Costing an estimated $65 million to produce, Underwater was filmed so long ago – the middle of 2017, by some accounts – that when they wrapped production Kristen Stewart hadn’t yet become one of Charlie’s Angels and T.J. Miller hadn’t even started his work on Deadpool 2, which makes this one of his final pre-#MeToo projects. Let that sink in for a moment.

It’s not based on IP. Fox initially promised it would come out in 2018, but that was also back when Fox was owned by the Murdochs. Disney is in charge now, and now the Mouse House is burning off Underwater the same weekend the competition is debuting 1917, Like a Boss, and Just Mercy. So, yeah, the expectations? They be low, and the early box office returns are as depressing as a clown stuffed in a refrigerator. (That Joker reference landed, right?) Underwater is going to make even less than The Grudge, which, I just can’t with that right now.

Here’s the thing, though: Underwater is an absolute blast!

If you’ve seen the trailer, you probably expect Underwater to deliver some predictable The Abyss meets Alien mashup. Instead, you should go into it expecting a survival horror video game brought to life with imagery lifted from all over the place, including the Biohazard series. That’s not always a good thing. The character development is shallow, that is when it’s not entirely non-existent. Loads of plot and backstory seems to have been left on the ocean floor.

However, it just doesn’t seem to matter. Director William Eubank keeps the audience on their toes the entire time and simply never lets up, quite effectively putting Kristen Stewart through her paces, and ultimately builds to a completely bonkers third act filled with creepy monsters that are instant additions to the sci-fi horror hall of fame.

You leave Underwater feeling like you kind of know what it must be like to swim through darkness with monsters. If so, Eubank did his job. After all, an encounter with a great white helped inspire his approach to the film.

William Eubank is an avid scuba diver. Yes, for our purposes, his background in film – started gigging as a cinematographer at 18, studied at UCLA, worked for Panavision for nearly a decade, finally transitioned into directing the sci-fi movies Love (2011) and The Signal (2014), each of them about isolated and/or lonely protagonists – seems more pertinent. However, there’s an anecdote from his scuba diving adventures, shared in a recent SFX Magazine interview, that jumped out at me:

“The first time I dove years ago, off Catalonia, you couldn’t even see your hand. I was told, ‘Swim out to the buoy, follow the chain to the bottom and wait. So, I do, and I’m waiting. It’s dark, I’m feeling the pressure on my skin, and I’m like, ‘Gosh, what’s going on?’ I go back up, and they’ve evacuated the water, but forgot about me because there’s a great white shark!”

That kind of primal experience sticks with someone. It’s the brush-with-death story he’ll tell until the day he actually dies. How could it not? Eubank dove in water that was so cloudy he couldn’t see his own hand, and after a period of isolation, he realized he was stuck in there with a godless killing machine and no one was coming to rescue him. It wasn’t an episode of Shark Week; it was his life.

Underwater plays like a movie informed by that experience. Eubank didn’t write the script. That job fell to Brian Duffield (The Babysitter) and Adam Cozad (The Legend of Tarzan), and in that same SFX interview, Eubank is quicker to name survival video games like Soma and Dead Space as Underwater inspiration than his own scuba misadventures. There’s the obvious Alien meets The Abyss accusation of this just being a giant knockoff.

To be fair, other films from this genre do indeed play a role in Underwater’s aesthetic and tonal approach to what is a rather simple story – underwater miners flee an exploding facility and walk the bottom of the ocean floor to somewhere safer, exposing themselves to mysterious monsters in the process. But in the recurring moments when the camera refocuses itself on Stewart – sometimes giving us her point of view, more often focusing on her face looking out through her massive glass helmet – you get all of the tension Eubank likely felt when he swam with the sharks in zero-visibility water. Except she’s not down there with sharks. No, these monsters … well, spoiler, but have you read much Lovecraft?

Within the film’s first couple of minutes, it is immediately obvious that Eubank wasn’t kidding when he claimed to owe a lot to survival video games. Kristen Stewart’s buzzcut-loving Norah gets all of maybe three-minutes to brush her teeth and voice-over to us about the virtues of cynicism before she is thrust in what would play like an absolutely killer opening cut-scene in a video game.

Corridors cave in around her. Command terminals cease to work. Racing around corners, she repeatedly slips, cutting her toes and head in the process, but presses forward out of pure adrenaline. Life-or-death decisions are made on the fly, and she’s soon crawling through rubble and confined spaces with the only two fellow survivors she could find, one of them played by TJ Miller.

The group eventually grows larger than that (Vincent Cassel portrays the stoic captain, Iron Fist’s Jessica Henwick is a nervous research assistant, and so on), but only moderately. We don’t come to deeply know any of them since there’s just no time for backstory o’clock. So, we get all we need from their actions, and through that, they each display differing degrees of bravery and selflessness, though some have to grow into it.

Jessica Henwick stars in Twentieth Century Fox’s “Underwater”.

Stewart’s Norah ultimately carries the story, and Eubank’s direction gives us the thrilling sequences we expect but not always in the way we expect to get it.

Still, I can see why some critics have come down hard on this film. There’s no real grand plot on display here. It’s entirely too easy to watch some of the characters die and think, “Which one was that? What was their name?” And other than if-it-was-good-enough-for-Sigourney-Weaver-in-1979 handwaving there is no solid explanation for why Kristen Stewart ends the film running around in her bra and panties when a wetsuit would have been just fine. (There is a throwaway line about only underwear fitting inside their mech suits.)

I didn’t care, though. I had a blast with this movie. It’s serious when it needs to be, bonkers when it wants, and constructed around a solid lead performance and cool monster design. January burn-off movies are rarely so competent.

What say you about any of that? Let me know in the comments.

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