A lower-IQ cross between Alien and The Abyss, jettisoning philosophy in favor of showing tough ladies facing off against icky monsters and mother nature.
William Eubank’s highly derivative but enjoyable Underwater gathers from a number of sources to create a familiar but effective monster thriller. It’s a lower-IQ cross between Alien and The Abyss, jettisoning philosophy in favor of showing tough (yet still scantily-clad) ladies facing off against icky monsters and mother nature.
For viewers at or approaching middle age, the film might evoke a strong sense of déjà vu. 21 years ago, Underwater’s wackier older sibling, Deep Rising, was released. Starring Famke Janssen and Treat Williams as working class heroes taking on horrifying sea monsters, it was hated in its day but earned a cult following over the years, which sets the stage for this belated follow-up starring Kristen Stewart and Vincent Cassel. Deep Rising’s luxury cruise setting, a symbol of ‘90s new-money excess, has been replaced by the very 2020 idea of a deep-sea mining operation, but the overall effect is the same; both movies know how to have fun.
Stewart plays Norah, an engineer working miles below sea level on a landmark mining project. Chaos comes early and Norah’s station floods, killing dozens of her colleagues while she escapes to momentary safety. With the surviving captain (Cassel) and several other employees, including Paul (T.J. Miller), Emily (Jessica Henwick) and Liam (John Gallagher Jr.), a group sets off along the ocean floor in order to find the main drilling site, which will presumably have more oxygen than their rapidly deflating station. As they trundle along in spacesuit-like diving gear, they are confronted by some nasty creatures.
The performances are solid, particularly Stewart, who has proven herself to be quite the action star as of late. Unfortunately audiences didn’t take to the recent Charlie’s Angels reboot, but hopefully she’ll have some more success here. Regardless, she’s eminently watchable. The self-consciousness that occasionally marred her performances as a teenager is gone and she has blossomed into a true star. Despite her slight stature, she brings a brusque physicality to Norah that makes her believable as both a hands-on engineer and monster movie survivor. She’s aided by a fun, surprising cast, and has great chemistry with rising star Henwick, who has been cast as a lead in the upcoming Matrix sequel.
While it’s nice to watch a film that happily wears its influences on its sleeve, Underwater’s derivative nature does hold it back. It has the ingredients to really be something special, and it could be if Eubanks were bolder. However, when it comes time for surprises and reveals, he is content to settle for homage. Alien, in particular, is consistently referenced in both plot beats and visuals, and the film coasts on that, never really cutting out a unique place for itself. Even Deep Rising went truly weird in its conclusion.
Despite its refusal to offer anything particularly fresh, Underwater is still well-paced, atmospheric and beautifully presented. It features fine acting, particularly from Kristen Stewart, and when it chooses to copy something, it chooses well. But given the timely nature of its set-up, it would have been fun to see it dive a little deeper.