Director: William Eubank
Screenwriter: Brian Duffield, Adam Cozad
Starring: Kristen Stewart, Vincent Cassel, Jessica Henwick, John Gallagher Jr., Mamoudou Athie, T.J. Miller
Underwater opens with a montage of newspaper articles discussing a company’s decision to drill in the Mariana Trench, and ominous warnings about undisclosed peril that may lurk there. The fact that it was in print shows how out of place Underwater is. It was filmed in 2017, but the concept is so trite at this point that it’s a wonder how it got such a huge budget. It’s unclear why the film was pushed, but like fellow Fox creation The New Mutants, 2020 was its chance to see the light of day. It wasn’t worth the wait.
The film follows a small crew as they attempt to escape their station at the bottom of the trench as it slowly melts down. It features killer sea critters that pick off our heroes one by one during their escape, though it isn’t clear if these creatures always lived in the trench or if they came out of the hole the company was drilling. The company’s motivations are never mentioned, so don’t bother asking why they were drilling in the first place.
Kristen Stewart plays Norah, a mechanical engineer who has a soft spot for living creatures, as we see when she saves a spider from her sink. She monologues in voiceover about how it’s easy to lose track of time when living underwater, and the camera displays the isolation she feels. Her backstory is explained in the third act for no reason. It’s not some big mystery, and it seems to serve the purpose of explaining why she’s so concerned with saving people, as if such a thing requires an explanation beyond basic empathy. Norah isn’t alone though… there are five whole other people in this movie. T.J. Miller brings his usual energy, which couldn’t be more out of place, while Captain Lucien (Cassel – The Emperor of Paris) is a stereotypical leader that cares for his crew. There are three other characters who fail to add much more to the film than bodies to search for when everyone is inevitably separated. Outside of these people, there is one other dead body on the station. Viewers barely gets the impression that there are more people in this station, save a line about how a bunch of people died or escaped in pods. There’s no exploration of the station pre-disaster, any explanation as to what these people are all doing here, or any interesting revelations from scientists about the potential for evil sea creatures.
The script is formulaic in structure, following a pattern of tension, reprieve, repeat ad nauseum. When the movie takes time to slow down, the characters have lame conversation in rapid middle shots. There’s a potentially interesting element surrounding the ethics of this project – someone has constructed massive bases and a giant tunnel larger than Mount Everest, yet no one really questions it. At one point, a character says, “This is our fault,” but that’s it! One line decrying the irreversible environmental harm brought on by the destruction of this station, yet we’re supposed to root for these characters? There’s no dissonance between Norah’s desire to save and the contribution she has made to this massive biohazard. The film couldn’t fit a single meaningful conversation into its 95 minute runtime. Instead, we’re treated to standard action flick movie-speak about the things happening right in front of them, or explanations of what we just saw because the specifics were a little murky.
This is encapsulated in a scene where they have captured one of the evil squid creatures. The research assistant, Emily (Jessica Henwick), marvels in vapid wonderment about how incredible it is to have found this creature. These characters almost died moments ago, but the movie takes time to have a character tell us just how amazing life is under the sea, as if she’s never seen or studied a deep sea creature before. There’s nothing of substance for the viewer to actually learn anything themselves, or anything particularly interesting about the creature from the audience’s point of view because it’s just a squid that screams and tries to attack the characters.
Since the film has a small bit of Lovecraft to it, it’s particularly disappointing that the picture doesn’t explore people going crazy or suffering from decompression sickness moving between all the different pressurized environments. Norah’s voiceover indicates that potential when discussing losing track of time, and there’s a scene where the Captain and Norah have a brief tiff over the age of his daughter (he says fourteen, she says she should be older than that). Was he losing his mind? No, she’s just dead, and it doesn’t matter. Director William Eubank describes the film as Lynchian: “In terms of narrative, I guess all of the usual culprits, David Lynch, Kubrick, all those masters of films that get in your mind,” Eubank told The Film Stage in 2017. Comparing your narrative to Lynch conjures thoughts of Mulholland Dr. – Lynch’s surrealism explores how dreams, fantasy and reality interact in the surreal world of film. There’s absolutely nothing like David Lynch in this movie; it’s linear, straightforward and perfectly sane.
The cinematography is perfectly competent. The camera gets into the tight triangles as Norah and company crawl through them, evoking a feeling of claustrophobia. The blue of their lights and blue of the ocean show that the difference between safety and danger is difficult to ascertain. Underwater sequences were shot by throwing particles into the space to give computers an idea of the density to properly generate water, and those perspective shots are effective at communicating the anxiety of the unknown (could have used more of that and less cutting away to people sitting in safety). A monochrome shot of Norah hunched over crying in the shower was bleak, and better than any other “debriefing” moment in the film. A shot near the end showing Norah shrouded in shadow, backlit against the ocean was another contemplative shot about the darkness and impact of human action. This movie could have done with a slower pace and more shots like these two over the action-packed, fast paced scares that you can catch in any haunted house movie.
Underwater isn’t The Shining or Eraserhead – it isn’t even Alien or Annihilation – it’s a bad script that good visual artists committed to screen, and it’s going to be gone from memory as suddenly as it arrived. Don’t bother watching it because there’s a film catalogue deeper than the Mariana Trench you can watch instead.