Underwater isn’t as deep as its setting and is far from original, but it’s a fun blend of genres bolstered by solid performances and a relentless pace.
William Eubank’s confidently no-nonsense Underwater doesn’t give you time to find your sea legs, and perhaps that’s just as well — paying too much attention to the cracks in the foundations would only get you soggy when the whole thing starts taking on water. And that happens quickly here. There’s barely time to take a deep breath before the film’s deep-sea setting is creaking and groaning with the weight of the unknowable ocean above it and the equally-unknowable horrors below. In the middle are a team of thin, disposable researchers led by a capable-as-ever Kristen Stewart as mechanical engineer Norah, whom we meet admiring her bleached buzz-cut in the mirror while a gratingly ill-advised philosophical narration contemplates life in the deep.
The movie surrounding Norah is part disaster flick, part Alien-alike Lovecraftian creature-feature, with an obvious enthusiasm for both of those classic mid-level blockbuster genres. Stewart fronts the cast of survivors that includes Vincent Cassel, Mamoudou Athie, John Gallagher Jr., Jessica Henwick, and T.J. Miller, this having been filmed before the latter rendered himself virtually unemployable (it’s probably telling that his one-note shtick gets very tired very quickly in Underwater, and he’s the obvious weak link among an otherwise fine cast.) Henwick, freed from the trappings of the Marvel machinery, probably has the standout supporting role, though Cassel’s down-with-the-ship captain gives her a run for her money.
The creaky, leaky deep-sea drilling complex located several miles below the ocean’s surface makes for a decently breathless environment, in more ways than one. Most of the film’s terrors are universal — being alone, in the dark, surrounded by water; it’d be tense without any monsters to worry about. But that isn’t enough for Eubank or screenwriters Adam Cozad and Brian Duffield, who punctuate a thin script with one misfortune after another. It takes only five minutes for them to fill the station with seawater and not much longer to blame the disaster on tentacled monstrosities. There wouldn’t be time to breathe even if the cast weren’t tramping a mile along the ocean floor to another station with potentially life-saving escape pods, but unfortunately, they are.
Underwater will likely divide audiences with its relentless pace, weak character writing, and a final act full of murky underwater visuals and beasties sprung straight from a computer. But it’s nonetheless an accomplished, enjoyable B-picture with fine stretches of atmosphere and tension-building that are significantly better and more lasting than you might expect. Its derivative structure and eagerness to reach a climax — it comes up for air in a lean 90 minutes and feels like it can’t wait to break the surface for almost its entire runtime — keep its pleasures facile, but its pleasures are undeniably there if you bother to take the plunge.
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