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Non-Review Review: Underwater

There’s a surprising charm to Underwater, which largely extends from its sense of propulsive forward momentum.

Underwater is not necessarily a good movie. It often feels like two radically different and highly derivative science-fiction movies stitched together, transposed from deep space to the deep sea. Underwater is never entirely sure whether it wants to be Gravity… but in the ocean” or Alien… but in the ocean”, and so repeatedly finds itself caught between the two extremes. It is a film populated by archetypes rather than characters, and which is pushed from one set piece to the next by percussive force rather than any coherent throughline.

A deep dive.

And yet, in spite of all that, there’s something strangely appealing about the mismatch of elements at play in Underwater. It isn’t just the way in which the film bounces haphazardly between a disaster film and a monster movie, it is also reflected in the casting. Underwater is a B-movie that brings together quite an eclectic set of leads. Kristen Stewart continues the gentle transition back towards the mainstream that began with Charlie’s Angels, but finds herself working opposite a cast including arthouse favourite Vincent Cassel and broader performers like T.J. Miller.

These seemingly contradictory elements create a strange frisson within the film, one that is just as volatile as the energy reactor that (inevitably) threatens to got critical to add an extra layer of pressure to the already beleaguered characters. However, director William Eubank seems to understand that these components are highly unstable, and so Underwater moves a dizzying pace that helps to prevent any of internal imbalances from reaching critical mass. It’s hardly the stuff of create cinema, but it’s a surprisingly sturdy and energised B-movie.

Suited to the task.

Underwater gestated for quite a while. Brian Duffield’s script was originally bought by 20th Century Fox in October 2015. Filming was announced in March 2017. The film eventually arrived in cinemas in January 2020, with relatively little fanfare. This perhaps explains why the movie feels a little out of time. It’s a movie from a major studio, but it feels quite distinct from a lot of the contemporary cinematic output. Indeed, its closest recent cinematic companion piece is probably something like Life, another B-movie Alien knock-off with an A-list cast. Life was released in 2017.

However, there’s also a sense in which Underwater feels like it belongs to an even older time. It seems like a movie in step with that weird phase in the later nineties when disaster movies and monster movies seemed to be creeping back towards the mainstream, reflected in the sweep of summer blockbusters including everything from Twister to Deep Blue Sea to Volcano to Dante’s Peak to Godzilla. Even the overlap of film’s science-fiction trappings – the elaborate industrial futuristic sets – with a horror sensibility recalls movies like Supernova, Virus or Event Horizon.

No time for reflection.

To be fair, there’s not really a lot of time to appreciate this frame of reference. Underwater opens with a relatively pretentious voice-over monologue from its main character, Norah Price. However, this minute of dialogue is about as much distinct characterisation as Norah receives over the course of the movie. For the rest of the film, she is largely defined by her roles within the crew and the narrative. She is the oil rig’s mechanical engineer, which explains her technical proficiency. She is also the horror movie’s central character, which accounts for her resilience.

That opening monologue immediately gives way to carnage. Lights blink, girders bend, walls burst, water floods. It’s a credit to Eubank that he manages to throw the audience into the deep end so quickly. Underwater works in large part because it eschews characterisation or worldbuilding in favour of visceral thrills. The audience learns as much as they will about the mysterious “Tian Corporation” from the graphics in the opening credits, and Norah’s back story is only obliquely suggested rather than openly exposited.

Loving Vincent.

Underwater quickly becomes a series of “… and then…!” escalations. This is an incredibly delicate manoeuvre, one that banks heavily on the director and the cast. The film rockets from one idea to the next, constantly escalating both the stakes and the sense of the uncanny. Eubank keeps the camera moving and the characters in motion, ensuring that there’s never really a moment for anybody in the cast or the audience to properly stop and think about what’s happening. Norah’s only real moment of respite arrives about an hour into the film.

This approach to storytelling is akin to riding a rollercoaster without any breaks, hoping that the sheer forward momentum will be enough to prevent anything important from falling out along the way. Underwater just about succeeds, as it pivots from a fairly standard set-up towards something decidedly more outlandish. Inevitably, what initially looks like a horrific natural disaster takes a very sharp turn towards the absurd and the impossible. It’s a very strong swing, and dizzy curve in terms of the story, and Underwater relies on nobody asking too many questions.

Under pressure.

To be fair, there’s a sense that Underwater bites off more than it can chew. The initial hook of the underwater disaster is a strong premise for a film like this, and the film arguably works best before it introduces any more elaborate complications on top of that – the horror of sealing a breach with crewmembers inside, the discomfort of crawling through a collapsed corridor decorated with deceased colleagues, the brutal realities of pressure at that depth. There is enough material in the opening half-hour of Underwater to sustain the film, without adding monsters to the mix.

Rigged for action.

Indeed, the monsters are perhaps the weakest aspect of the film. Those opening twenty minutes very effectively establish the idea that the environment is openly hostile to the characters trapped on the oil rig, and so adding these predators into the mix feels excessive. More than that, the creatures are so nebulously designed that Euback was actually able to radically rework the core concept in postproduction without disrupting any of the larger film. They are just… there. They feel almost separate to the story, an unnecessary complication to an already heightened situation.

Still, Underwater moves quickly enough that none of its flaws reach critical mass. The film clocks in at a lean ninety-five minutes, but those ninety-five minutes have been packed to breaking point. There’s a sense of pragmatism to this. After all, so many of these sorts of films are populated by archetypes and clichés, so there’s an efficiency to stripping out stock characterisation and replacing it with more pared-down dialogue and meaningful glances between actors like Cassel and Stewart. Nobody will mistake Underwater for a character piece, but it uses its cast efficiently.

Underwater has a pulpy B-movie appeal to it, moving quickly and energetically enough that the holes don’t let in enough water to sink it.

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