I’m a sucker for flicks that take place in hostile environments, where the characters must fight to survive, often against some ‘terror from beyond’. For some reason, considering that I have a wussy fear of deep water (if I can’t see the bottom, peace out!), the science fiction / horror stories taking place beneath the waves always get my attention, going back to 1989’s ‘deep sea peril’ Box Office clash of mediocre Deep Star Six, perfectly acceptable Leviathan and, in my opinion, James Cameron’s infinitely superior The Abyss (where the fuck is the Blu ray, Jim?!). Ever since then, I’ve had a fondness for stories of undersea terror…and it’s been a while since I’ve seen one that really blew my skirt up.
Usually I’m pretty quick to dismiss Kristen Stewart (Panic Room), almost entirely due to her heavy involvement with that bullshit Twilight franchise, and I admit that that’s probably unfair. But for her to turn up in THIS genre, I admit I was morbidly curious about how this title / her range would fare. However, when this apparently $50 – $80 million (how the hell is that range SO wide, IMDB?!) thriller slipped into theaters back in January, I think COVID-19 was just becoming a thing…so I’m sure that didn’t help the measly final Box Office take (only about $40 million). Despite not having heard much about this flick, probably considering that Production was completed back in ’17 and the end product was shelved leading into the Disney take-over of 20th Century Fox (this is allegedly the last film released under the old 20th Century Fox logo), I heard JUST enough…and what I heard was intriguing, if not overly original.
The few reviewers I saw that had something to say about Underwater seemed to like it well enough , while also recognizing that it undeniably wore its genre influences on its sleeves. But overall, the general opinion seemed to be that it was a well-made and enjoyable sci-fi / horror flick, but that it was ultimately disposable and derivative.
I’m always intrigued when there is no overwhelming consensus on the quality of a movie, where the movie-going masses are concerned. When there are equal amounts of good and bad touted in relation to a title, about which I admittedly knew little, I get interested.
That was the case here.
But the shit-show that is 2020 got in the fucking way and I missed the chance to see Underwater on The Big Screen which, having now seen it just now,…IS WHERE IT DESERVES TO BE SEEN!
After it quickly and quietly departed from cinemas, I figured it wouldn’t be too long before some streaming service would slide it out there. As of this writing, none of the services I subscribe to had acquired it…so impatience and curiosity got the better of me. On a resupply mission into town, I heard the siren song of Best Buy and found a lone copy of the Blu ray on the shelf.
Good guess…yes!…I DID buy it!
Underwater opens with a mysterious and catastrophic accident befalling a research / mining complex sprawled along the floor of the deepest point on Earth, the Marianas Trench. During the carnage, we follow a mechanical engineer named ‘Norah’ (Kristen Stewart) as she desperately fights to survive, meeting a handful of other survivors along the way, including the complex’s commander, ‘Capt. Lucien’ (Vincent Cassel). This vulnerable little group is forced to travel across the ocean bottom on foot to escape the wide-spread destruction of the stricken habitat. Once traversing the black, gloomy depths…they discover they’re not alone out there.
As usual, out came the pad and paper.
Let the scribbles ensue…
–Se7en-inspired credits. Stylishly done. Harking back to that classic David Fincher-helmed masterpiece, I was reminded of how many flicks after 1995 opted to follow his example and lay their opening credits over quickly cut and deliberately rough-looking montages of images and information that help us, the audience, get up to speed on the style and the substance of the narrative that we’re about to…ahem…dive into. Underwater took that cinematic tool and employed it here. It was slickly done and I appreciated it.
–Right into the shit! No nonsense opening scene. This was one thing that I had read prior to seeing Underwater, that it wastes no time getting right into the thick of things with no frills or delay (a little to it’s detriment, but more on that later). After a quick, contemplative intro to ‘Nora’, the walls literally come crashing down mere minutes in as the facility is stricken by…something…catastrophic. Now, it can be argued that this intro glossed over the potential for valuable character development, leaving us with less-than-defined protagonists with whom we have little emotional connection to as the stakes get higher and higher, but I just accepted that this was going to be a plot-driven narrative as opposed to a character-driven one. Sometimes…that’s just fine with me.
–Sweet Production Design. Very Alien. As previously mentioned, Underwater is a flick that feels no shame in hinting (quite strongly, at times) at the other movies out there in Pop Culture that clearly played a role in guiding the look and atmosphere of the Production (think Alien, The Abyss, Leviathan, Gravity, etc). Hell, there’s a control room set that was nearly a dead ringer for the crew area of ‘The Nostromo’ in Alien, right down to the horizontal tube lighting and the circular-shaped array of monitors suspended above a round table. Further to this, everything had a ‘lived in’ and slightly run-down feeling before the carnage ensued. Once the shit hit the fan, the attention to detail in the destruction was equally cool.
–I like the character interactions. While Underwater doesn’t have the most fleshed out set of characters, it does a good job of giving them naturalistic-sounding banter (to my ears, anyway) as they come together to try and survive. It gave me enough to pull me into their plight just that little bit more.
–Cool suit design. In keeping with the detailed aesthetic of the settings, the collection of deep-sea diving suits all had a bulky, industrial look to them that felt both plausible and cinematic…and that worked for me.
–Nice! Actual darkness. Many of these Man-in-Peril flicks that take place in the deep depths feel the need to artificially light everything in a way that would be physically impossible in Real Life. Below 3280 feet, light from the surface does not penetrate, therefore anything further down is caught in a ‘midnight zone’ of total darkness, as the Mariana Trench is. This movie knows that and put that reality to good use (in my opinion) by shrouding everything in murky darkness (including that which assails our group) that is only ever penetrated by the lights of the stricken facility and those carried by our main characters. One of the aspects of the deep ocean that instinctively scares the shit outta lil ole me is this eerie combination of darkness and gloom…and what it could be hiding. This gave the oh so quick glimpses of the prowling entities all the more punch, while still keeping them mysterious.
–TJ Miller. You’re an asshole…but you ARE funny. I say ‘asshole’ based on the scattering of stories I’ve seen regarding the comedian’s allegedly selfish and dickheaded conduct behind the scenes on several of his movies. That’s not even to mention the ruckus involving the fake bomb threat call he made on Amtrak a few years ago that got his ass arrested. So…yeah…not a great human being, that TJ Miller. That being said, his brand of humor was well-used here in among all the terror and carnage that ensue. And *SPOILERS*…his fate is gruesome and effective…and definitely got my attention.
–Eerie use of gloom. As mentioned above, this flick embraces the use of darkness to sinister effect and I MOSTLY appreciated it, when it wasn’t interfering with the geography of the action…which it unfortunately sometimes did (more on that later).
–Some shots reminiscent of Gravity…helmet shots. Like that orbit-set disaster movie of 2013, many times we find ourselves inside the helmets with the characters in extreme close-up, which helped accentuate the eerie murk that surrounded and threatened them just beyond their visors. An effective cinematic choice.
–Some genuine tension. Near suicide scene + ‘Get to the door’. This flick has several effective sequences of rising tension but these two stood out. ‘Norah’ must find one of her lost companions whom she can hear over the radio but can’t communicate with before the characters opts to end it all, so a frantic race against time ensues. This is followed shortly after by having our survivors reach their destination, only for it to be rendered virtually unreachable, yet well within sight, by a large, unexpectedly sinister threat…just as the O2 levels reach a critical point! Solid stuff.
–Good score. Eerie and appropriately sci-fi. I’ve liked several of composer Marco Beltrami’s past scores, going back to his highly effective music for 1996’s ground-breaking Scream and I again found myself impressed with what he (and another composer named Brandon Roberts) composed for Underwater. So much so, that it’s currently my soundtrack as I write these words.
–Could very much be a modern Lovecraft. Something epic occurs in the 3rd Act that made me sit up and realize what Underwater could ACTUALLY be…and that is screenwriter Brian Duffield’s take on the iconic work of horror author H.P. Lovecraft (1890 – 1937)! I love Lovecraft’s written work (despite the author’s penchant for casual racism) and have been disappointed by the vast majority of adaptations of the man’s stories over the years (though Richard Stanley’s recent adaptation of The Colour Out of Space is definitely an exception to this and is also worth checking out). While Underwater is not a direct adaptation of any of Lovecraft’s work (in the same way that John Carpenter’s terrific In the Mouth of Madness isn’t), the story eventually gives way to a direct (and awesomely realized) connection to Lovecraft’s Old Ones mythos (confirmed by what I read in my post-viewing research) and I loved the juxtaposition of the ancient, cosmic evil and the illusion of the high-tech security of the doomed facility. A very cool reveal that I highly approve of.
–Nice bookend for ‘Norah’. Selflessness. Even though there is admittedly a lack of ‘flesh’ on our main characters, I did like that a scene between ‘Norah’ and ‘Capt. Lucien’ early on, where she gives him shit for not escaping the dying facility when he had the chance, is paid off when she embraces his view of sacrifice in the 3rd Act, and commits to it. It may not work for all viewers, but it worked for me.
-‘Less is more’ works very well here. AGAIN, going back to the use of darkness and murk (and probably a lack of budget), the creatures and situations are often shrouded and hinted at, similar to how Bruce The Shark was handled (to surprisingly effect) in 1975’s classic Jaws, or the Xenomorph in 1979’s equally renowned Alien, among others. I liked this approach and whole-heartedly approve of it.
–Cool. Yep, for that most part, that single word does sum up how I was left feeling when the Final Credits rolled on this 1 hour and 35 minute creature feature / disaster movie…to the point where I sat back and said it aloud…before scribbling it down.
Thus ends the scribbles.
So, looking back, there’s a lot of fawning going on in many of my notes, so in the spirit of fairness, I do need to touch on a couple negatives.
First, I do feel that the diminished importance of character development, in favor of getting right to the action in Act One, left something lacking. This isn’t a Deal Breaker for me, not by a long stretch, as the banter that ensues still had some ‘crackle’ to it and provided JUST ENOUGH to warrant giving a shit about the fates of these characters. Second, while I applaud the engaging and smart use of darkness for the vast majority of the run-time, there were times when the geography of the action became confusingly muddled. There’s one intense sequence where two characters, who are tethered together, get taken on a scary and dizzying ride through the water by a beasty; a ride that I lost track of half way through because of the lack of discernible reference points. I literally couldn’t tell if the main threat (aside from the rampaging creature) was due to them rapidly ascending(?)…or descending(?)…out of control and with the threat of implosion looming. A couple other scenes play like this as well, knocking my score back a point or two. There’re a couple weird edits where I swear you can tell something of substance was edited out in Post, when it never should’ve been. There was one instance where key characters are suddenly beset by the creatures and in a jump cut, they suddenly emerge somewhere else triumphantly, while we never get to see how the hell they got out of that last situation. There’s a couple other little gripes, but they’re really not worth delving into…
…because I found that Underwater overall was a quality science fiction / horror flick that clearly took influence from some amazing heavyweights in the genre, such as Alien (1979), The Thing (1982), Aliens (1986), The Abyss (1989), Leviathan (1989), Sunshine (2007), Pandorum (2009), Gravity (2013), and Life (2017)…among others. And I’m happy to say that Underwater, in my humble opinion, can easily stand shoulder-to-shoulder with those films in quality and execution. I’m glad I took the chance on the ‘blind buy’ (something I almost NEVER do with movies) when I scored the lone copy Best Buy had. My months-long curiosity paid off, as I got a capable cast who put in the effort even with the shallow characters given, a very cool Production Design (that’s important in a flick of this nature), a dark, tense atmosphere that capitalized on using the audiences imagination to fill in what the murk hid, and a couple of really gnarly kills. I’m actually a little surprised that this was PG-13, as at least two kill were impressively quick, gory and brutal, not to mention inventive. I also need to throw props to the cool sets, the creature designs (thinking the big guy…especially when you realize who he is), the Sound Design (play this one loud), the Score (sinister stuff…it’s great), and the get-right-to-it pace of the narrative also help bolster the recommendability of this surprising under-the-radar thriller.
And I definitely recommend it…particularly if you’re a fan of any of the titles I listed above.
As a Science Fiction film…Underwater works.
As a Horror film…Underwater works.
And as a Disaster Film…Underwater works.
Stir all that up and throw in a healthy connection to Lovecraftian lore…and you’ve got a solid thriller that I can get behind, one that I think got shafted at the Box Office, not to mention in its development.
Quality entertainment like this doesn’t deserve to be shelved (makes me think of Cabin in the Woods (2011)) for any length of time. But…I’m glad it DID get released…
(SIDENOTE – I wonder how many complete but unreleased films there may be languishing away in the vaults of major Hollywood studios right now. Hmmm…..)
…as it gave me almost exactly what I hoped it would give me, and that was the thrills and chills of a solid, (but admittedly derivative) undersea thriller that effectively did it’s own thing as it gleaned elements from other influential material, without embarrassing itself in the process. For what it is…I thought Underwater was well done and I had a damn good time with it…
…and you might too.
Take a dive Underwater!
*I just have to say again that the way the story unveiled its connection to Lovecraft got me pumped. If you’re a fan of that man’s macabre literary material, then I can doubly recommend Underwater! There’s a nice marriage at work in this flick…and I think it paid off well, as now I want to see / know more!