After Underwater‘s first trailer emerged from the Mariana Trench, feedback was mostly “it’s Alien but in the ocean, so what?” Well, you were all right! Underwater is most assuredly William Eubank’s submerged take on Ridley Scott’s sci-fi masterpiece – which isn’t a negative. Have we forgotten how most movies are reinventions of existing inspirations? Writers Brian Duffield and Adam Cozad owe much thanks to extraterrestrial influencers from the aforementioned The Sphere to Pitch Black, but their seabed storytelling suffers not from copycat syndrome. In space no one can hear you scream, underwater no one can hear you scream, but one thing’s for certain – you *will* scream.
Kristen Stewart stars as Norah, a mechanical engineer currently servicing an oceanic drilling rig some seven miles below the surface. When an earthquake damages 70% of the station she calls home, survival becomes priority number one. As ordered by Norah’s captain (Vincent Cassel), the remaining crew must “walk” roughly two miles in diving suits to reach the remaining escape pods in another outpost extension. No fortified walls for protection, no understanding of what could cause such damage if their earthquake assumptions are false.
Any film that kicks into gear within minutes earns lasting points in my critical ledger. Eubank wastes no time flooding Tian Industries’ expansive construction with gushing torrents of water headed right for Norah. Underwater urgently embraces the frantic thrills of a “sinking ship” scenario that’s already sunken by design. You’re on a need-to-know basis with this ninety-minute fight against brutal fates (legit, b-r-u-t-a-l), and what’s most important – that the film sells – is just how many ways there are to die inside and outside quarters crumbling like tin cans. It’s all pressurized terror that’ll make your head burst.
I won’t argue that Underwater feels a bit outdated, beyond the three-year delay between filming and release. There are, um, “choices” that I thought had died out in horror cinema even a decade ago. When [redacted] dies, it’s quite the, “um, really” moment. Aesthetics are very much in line with 90s horror (sex appeal included), as fates aren’t particularly hidden and every alarming decision is backed by motivations of “well, we have no choice.” The latter thankfully ends up working in tandem with pacing accents mentioned above, only scratching tiny leaks into the production’s bouyant hull.
Remarking on the Alien comparison, no, Eubank’s film is never *as* effective as Scott’s vacuum-sealed terror epic – but it’s still a worthy homage. In an eco-horror turn, blaming man for drilling too deep into a subterranean pocket where unknown creatures were once contained (very The Meg), stalk-and-prey dynamics heighten the immense gravity of Norah’s escape. It’s enough that mechanical failures are causing industrial explosions and diving suit failures result in immediate death, but now you have these Cloverfield-adjacent lifeforms gliding through currents with merciless aggression. As aqua-horror creature features go, Underwater earns its comparison points and warnings against planetary abuse. A tension-taut voyage soaked in dread and suction-tight paranoia.
Everyone from the set designers to costume creators deserves thunderous applause for their achievements in world-building. Those personal diving suits that Norah and company operate are bulky, sci-fi mech armors that look amazing as wearable props. Something out of Gears Of War, in steel-plated detail. Eubank’s special effects team works these suits so seamlessly into liquid ecosystems as characters follow their sandy path, equally adept at using animated monsters that never feel cheaply CGI’ed. Oh, and the entire pipeline commune? A hive of super-futuristic architecture that appears like this new Atlantis built on greed and corporate funding. That’s all the praise I can talk about openly, but then it gets even *better* in a Lovecraftian Act III.
Honestly, the technical wonderment of Underwater exists as a middle-finger to “January release month” preconceptions.
Cinematographer Bojan Bazelli gets a special shout-out for tremendous shot choices. Love me some red-lit haunted house setups, as much as Norah’s fearful reflections (huddled in a ball under running water or such). Different camera techniques are employed to benefit Bazelli’s command of tone, whether it’s raw shakycam “found footage” style when rig workers squeeze through tight openings or wide-angle views to remind of the crew’s current environmental isolation. First-person perspectives never overuse the in-helmet gimmick since we see through Norah’s visor at times, as well. It’s a lot of visual trickery, but never lost is a graceful cinematic feel that employs these starburst explosions or flare-illuminated “oh shit” moments or suspended slow-motion wallops capturing momentary acrobatics of human destruction.
Character development plays second fiddle to waterlogged escapism, with Stewart’s leading toughie given a tragic past that never really seems important. T.J. Miller’s comedic relief carries a stuffed bunny (sure), Emily (Jessica Henwick) and Smith (John Gallagher Jr.) are dating, Cassel’s ranking senior again given a past that’s almost throwaway – but you’re here for the mercreature invasion, and that’s what Underwater drives home. Monster shadows lurking behind jittery swimmers already darting their heads cautiously. Extreme jump scares as beady eyes blink in the silt-clouded distance. You don’t need expert character acting to enhance these inserts, like we didn’t need *so many* early jokes from Miller’s cynical lunatic (I’ll take the stereo pump-up gag).
That said, praise Stewart’s ability to showcase her signature nervous energy in a terrifying tale where said unease translates into projected despair. Then she switches to her yellow diving rig (“Power Loader Yellow,” is what they crayon would be called) and the gloves are off, flashing feisty-as-hell Ripley primality. Where most supporting actors are playing one-arc types, Stewart’s face is always dripping confliction. The courageous teammate who does what she must, yet is still subject to pure, anxiety-crippled hopelessness. Fitting for the situation, of course. It’s just that Stewart was precisely the right choice for Norah.
In the words of Gwen Stefani, “this my shit.” William Eubank has now twice impressed me with his sc-fi envelopment (check out 2014’s The Signal), as Underwater is a location-based thriller that’s beyond easy to lose yourself within. Kristen Stewart enthusiastically fights against sea monsters of an extraterrestrial brand, while also combating natural dangers that come along with humans invading where they should not. Eubank punches your ticket and throws you into the deep end, no inflated swimmies for comfort. Admittedly, and showing my devotion to saturated subgenres, consistently my kind of in-your-face aquatic horror even when mid-scripted lulls might wear on less infatuated viewers.
Yes it's "Alien but underwater," and that's a good thing given how a top-notch Kristen Stewart leads us on a terrifying dive into the deepest reaches of aquatic horror.