PG-13, 95 mins.
2020, PG-13, 95 mins.
Kristen Stewart as Norah Price / T. J. Miller as Paul / Vincent Cassel as Le capitaine / Jessica Henwick as Emily
Directed by William Eubank / Written by Eubank, Adam Cozad and Brian Duffield
The new science
fiction horror thriller UNDERWATER is a beyond obvious ALIEN clone, right
down to key aspects of its characters, storytelling, and set pieces.
Replace the deep space trekking rig workers in Ridley Scott's
landmark 1979 classic with a setting miles deep into our oceans and insert
in the same essential motley crew of personality types fighting for their
lives against a humanity hating and killing beast of unknown origin and
you kind of get the idea here. UNDERWATER
is as derivative of an established formula as they come, but here's the
deal, though: It's well paced, remarkably atmospheric, and remains
thoroughly thrilling for a majority of its running time.
As far as clones go that inspire instant sensations of deja vu in
audiences members, UNDERWATER is a passably entertaining facsimile.
Right from the
get-go comparisons to Scott's aforementioned film are pretty unmistakable
and immediately felt. UNDERWATER dives deep (no pun intended) into the murky depths
of the Mariana Trench where a massive drilling corporation is using their
powerful tools to burrow deep into the earth for resources. One of the gargantuan deep sea structures contains a home for
some of the company's key technicians and grunt workers, one of which is
Norah (Kristen Stewart), an electric engineer that you know - you just
know! - will pull a full-on Ripley and emerge as a main battle hardened
leader when faced with an unfathomable threat.
The film doesn't waste time with expositional particulars, and the
opening sections of the story showcase a dreadful earthquake hitting the
site, which leaves Norah's station completely uninhabitable and her searching
for other survivors and a means of escaping to other sites that haven't
She manages to
locate some stragglers, like Emily (Jessica Henwick), Liam (John Gallagher
Jr.), Paul (T.J. Miller), and their captain (Vincent Cassell), with all of them
fully realizing the devastation that the quake has left in its wake,
leading to a very easy and practical alliance being formed to ensure their
collective survival (they also quickly learn that they are the last of
hundreds of company workers that perished during this hellish ordeal).
Understanding that life support systems and access to food and
shelter is of premium importance, Norah and her new squad put on their
diving suits and make their way across the ocean floor seeking out a livable
area, and all while trying to maintain their already meager
oxygen reserves. Unfortunately
for them, it appears that the earthquake (and possibly the drilling into
the Earth's crust) has awakened some strange, monstrous entities that
become far more dangerous
threats than running out of air and drowning.
There's an easy
criticism to levied upon UNDERWATER in the sense that it never seems to
even have a first act. Director William Eubank thrusts viewers right smack dab into
his character's fight for their lives, and all without much in the way of
character introductions and establishing particulars.
It's an understandable creative choice, especially for the type of
unrelenting tension that Eubank is trying to foster in this picture, and
to witness that quake devastate its way through Norah's headquarters is an
undeniably potent movie opener. The
nerve-jangling intrigue is absolutely present in the first few minutes of
UNDERWATER, but it has the clear negative side effect of making these
personas seem like propped up victims of the slaughter to come as
opposed to fully fleshed out and relatable personas.
Brian Duffield's and Adam Cozad's script dishes out morsels of
traits here and there that tries to embellish these characters throughout,
but they do so in superficial and unsatisfying ways.
For the most part, Norah and her new companions are broad character
types, and not much else. Some
of the character development is so lacking that it allows some actors just
to lazily riff through their parts, like T.J. Miller, playing his
umpteenth T.J. Millerian role as the increasingly annoying clownish idiot
of the group. A lot less of
him would have gone a long way here.
UNDERWATER completely makes up for these conceptual indiscretions is in
its near adrenalized relentlessness of stylistic approach and for its
sure-fire pacing (at a brisk 95 minutes, the film is commendably lean with
much of its fat being trimmed off). The
sense of haunting claustrophobia that these survivors face - mostly
trapped with their restrictive and highly susceptible to attack deep sea
gear - is constantly palpable, and watching this group engage in a pretty
anxiety riddled, real time excursion through destroyed debris and staving
off the attacks of these monsters of the abyss is pretty exemplarily
handled. That, and Eubanks
and cinematographer Bojan Bazelli really know how to milk the tight
confines of interiors and the vast dangers of the oceanic depths for
maximum cringe factor, leaving UNDERWATER dripping (sorry, no pun
intended again) with suspenseful atmosphere.
The sound design work here is also impeccably on point as well,
capturing all of the subtle minutia of this aquatic thriller great spatial
sequences are brutally efficient stand-outs, with thanklessly good
and convincing visual effects that do a solid job of making viewers
believe in the deep sea hazards that constantly are thrown at these poor
souls (granted, there are moments when the events are presented in such a
murky and ill defined manner that making sense of what's happening on
screen is sometimes challenging). I
especially admired one tour de force sequence involving the crew having to
get out of harm's way of all of the debris coming crashing down around and
nearly on top of them from various structures affected by the quake.
The introductory flooding scene set aboard Norah's rig is
stunningly executed with a lot of editorial fluidity.
Eubanks also wisely realizes the terrors beyond the creatures that
want to eat his characters, like the constant threats of the crew's suits
malfunctioning, the stresses of changing air supply fuel pods, or
the ghastly horrors of dying a quick and grisly death inside the armored
suits due to faulty decompression.
The monsters presented are thoroughly repellent and frightening,
but Eubanks perhaps gets a bit too showy for his own good in, well,
showing too much of them in the latter stages of the film when the early
scenes that obscure their appearance make them much more scary for their
implied levels of menace.
But, yes, all of this sounds painfully familiar, doesn't it. UNDERWATER can't hide from the fact that it's a ALIEN knockoff, albeit with some obvious echoes of THE ABYSS as well for good measure. Hell, Norah even manages to find herself racing for safety and escaping death multiple times in skimpy underwear, which is another blatantly ode to Sigourney Weaver's Ripley (granted, Stewart makes for a surprisingly convincing action hero here, despite her copycat character dynamics). UNDERWATER is a hard film to review. It's difficult to ignore its plagiaristic elements of iconic sci-fi fright fests of yesteryear, not to mention that the disaster and creature feature genres have been done so literally to death that I'm growing less responsive every year when faced with screening another. Having said that, and as far as movie regurgitations go, UNDERWATER displays a considerable amount of ambitious craft, and seeing it on a big screen with an amazing sound system provided for a memorably impressive sensory experience (something that will be lost watching it at home later on). Plus, as far as the usual smorgasbord of low rent and disposable fare unceremoniously released in January, UNDERWATER feels like a reasonable cut above the norm. The scripting here may creatively tread water too much and barely stays afloat, but viscerally this film is impressively engineered enough to warrant a modest recommendation.