A film review by Craig J. Koban January 24, 2020

UNDERWATER jjj
 

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 been destroyed.   

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. 

Still, where 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 effectiveness. 

Some individual 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. 

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