1989 might be one of my favorite years of horror, not because it was actually a “great” year, but because it birthed two of the best aquatic horror films ever made: Leviathan and DeepStar Six. I’m an avid deep-sea terror fan, and so when Underwater was announced, I found myself holding my breath in anticipation. As for whether or not the film can compare to those previous examples, well, like they say, “don’t hold your breath…”
…Directed by William Eubank (The Signal, 2014) and written by Brian Duffield (The Babysitter) and Adam Cozad (The Legend of Tarzan), Underwater takes us seven miles below the ocean’s surface to a subterranean drilling station, where we immediately meet Norah (Kristen Stewart), pontificating through expository narration (yawn) about a lost lover that drove her to this lonely place (bigger yawn). Just moments into the film, some sort of force strikes, breaching the hull of the station and causing mass chaos as Norah and what few survivors there are struggle to reach safety. But it turns out, the imploding station is not their only worry, because they’re drilling has unleashed terrifying creatures with a taste for blood.
Part Alien, part DeepStar Six, Underwater throws the audience into the deep end of the pool from the very first seconds and refuses to let the viewer come up for air, somewhat to its own detriment. To say that this film is a pulse-pounder would be an understatement. Unlike the aforementioned examples, Underwater wastes no time in getting to the action. The opening shot sees us plunging to the bottom of the ocean where we find Norah brushing her teeth, and only seconds later, the whole station is crumbling and going straight to a watery hell. This aquatic horror flick is an adrenaline shot to the arm that’ll have you on the edge of your seat, vibrating like you just drank ten cups of coffee. And it never lets up, whipping us from high-tension moment to high-tension moment, allowing just a few minutes total of calm to breathe.
But that’s also part of the problem. Because unlike virtually all of its aquatic predecessors, Underwater fails to build character and fully establish its setting. We’re so concentrated on problem after problem, that we’re only allowed to know the very basics of these people, all of whom represent tired tropes of the genre that you’d think we’d move on from after forty years. Norah’s our tough Ripley-esque character. Vincent Cassel is the calm captain. Emily (Jessica Henwick) is our token scared woman. Mamoudou Athie, our token black guy. T.J. Miller is the gruff jokester who carries around a stuffed rabbit for some reason never explained despite an unnecessarily massive amount of importance put on it. And John Gallagher Jr. is, well, just kind of there. Look through every Alien clone or deep-sea horror of the 80s, and you’ll find a similar cast of characters, but at least with those people, we get to know them a touch before the horror strikes. It’s tough to fully understand characters when we don’t know who they are before being thrown into chaos, and Underwater struggles to give us much of a reason to care for them, despite each cast member delivering solid performances, including the generally obnoxious Miller.
But hey, most of us just want a creepy monster movie, right? And in that area, Underwater succeeds…mostly. Despite the station crumbling around them, the first act of Underwater sees Norah and crew crawling through tight spaces, encountering dead bodies, and wandering the pitch-black ocean floor, all to the tune of strange noises chittering around them. In many ways, this film is my nightmare, and Eubank consistently takes advantage of those sorts of deep-sea, claustrophobic fears, building a nearly pitch-perfect atmosphere that keeps viewers waiting in suspense for the inevitable appearance of the creatures. One moment in particular, in which Miller and Gallagher Jr. go searching for a missing person, is particularly chest-tightening.
To be honest, I was surprised I enjoyed the vaguely Lovecraftian creatures as much as I did, considering they’re all 100% CG, so scrap your hopes for practical effects. I despise purely CG creatures, because they almost never feel real enough to me, and while the monsters in Underwater do suffer from a lack of presence, the things themselves are truly intimidating, ferocious, glowy-eyed beasts. Our cast never encounters the creatures inside, so there’s a lot of struggling to make out exactly what’s happening in the dark depths when they do appear, but the film provides enough eye-popping monster moments to make up for that. And I’ll admit, Underwater is pretty tame when it comes to the grotesque horror and gore we often associate with underwater horror, but it isn’t without a few shocking, bloody moments.
What’s most impressive about Underwater, other than the wild finale which may go down as one of the “coolest” of the year, is the production design. Regardless of its flaws, Underwater captivates with its sets and the clunky though futuristic design of the crew’s dive suits, all of which give an alien vibe to the film. Underwater cost roughly 80 million to make, and every dollar shows up onscreen. Like all horror, Underwater won’t be recognized for its outstanding visual designs come awards season, but it deserves it, because it does “eerie underwater station” better than most movies I’ve seen.
Ultimately though, Underwater is sunk by a repetitive script that sees our cast wandering in and out of the ocean, uninteresting characters, and creatures that, while they look great, don’t feel present enough until the third act, coming and going as it suits the film. When it comes to Underwater, the water is fine. But it’s just fine. If all you want is an adrenaline boost with some cool monsters, the film delivers. Just don’t expect more than that. But if you do happen to see it, check it out in IMAX, for reasons…
Underwater is now playing in theaters everywhere.
By Matt Konopka