How many films do you remember seeing during the month of January? Probably not very many...
...It’s easy to recall summer blockbusters, biopics, or whimsical fantasy films you saw with your family in December. In the film industry, the month of January is a bad omen. Essentially, when studios have films that are hard to market or that they aren’t sure what to do with, they get dumped into the January pile. A lot of horror films and thrillers get released during this time because the target demographic for those genres can be rather small. It’s a shame, too, because there are always a few exceptional films that get overlooked. On January 10, 2020 director William Eubank and writers Brian Duffield and Adam Cozad’s new thriller, Underwater, had its theatrical release. Filmed in 2017, it sat on the shelf until 20th Century Fox threw it in the dreaded January pile nearly 3 years later. This would be the last film under the 20th Century Fox brand, as Disney changed the name to 20th Century Studios only a week after release. This film couldn’t have been handled worse by the studio. Only bringing in about half of its $80 million budget, Underwater was a box office dud and the impending Covid-19 would solidify the film’s lack of exposure. It’s been exactly one year since the film was released and, despite the lackluster earnings, poor marketing, and lukewarm critical reception, to some, Underwater is criminally underrated.
It’s true that Underwater has a lot in common with other claustrophobic corridor horror pieces. It’s nigh impossible to watch the film without thinking of Alien (1979), but I never got the feeling it was trying to be that film, or any other film for that matter. The parallels are in tone, setting, and a bit of the plot, but never specific character tropes or cliché sequences that remind you of how another film did the same thing, but better. I attribute this to Underwater’s brilliant pacing and constant sense of urgency. Underwater has one of the best openings to a thriller/horror film that I’ve seen in a very long time. It’s also the most impressively shot sequence in the entire film. Production designer Naaman Marshall and cinematographer Bojan Bazelli deserve a standing ovation and showering of accolades for their work. There’s a short calm before the storm moment with Norah, (Kristen Stewart) as she stands alone in the sterile, communal bathroom brushing her teeth, only to be interrupted by a catastrophic event. It could have gone with a more traditional opening, with characters being introduced through a mundane “day in the life” style character set up, but Underwater separates itself by getting right into the action. We learn about our characters as our protagonist moves through the research vessel, collecting coworkers along the way. It’s a very natural way to inform the audience who these people are and how they relate to Norah.
It’s widely known in the film industry that shooting a film where water is a central character is incredibly difficult. An infinite number of things can go wrong. Water is unpredictable, not suitable for equipment, and most importantly, extremely dangerous if not respected. James Cameron’s The Abyss (1989), which has quite a few parallels to Underwater, set the bar for what is achievable in water-based films. It’s a massive undertaking, and one that Eubanks and company were up to the task for. What’s interesting about Underwater’s production is that it utilizes both actual water and simulated water. During the scenes in which our main characters are scurrying through corridors and slinking through the tightest of spaces, real water is used. Whenever the characters are “sea walking” on the ocean floor and are fully submerged, a mixture of smoke, wire work, and post-production digital effects are employed to create the illusion of being seven miles beneath the surface. It’s a seamless blending of effects that really sells the world these characters are in. Once while speaking about his experience working on Titanic (1997), producer John Landau stated the reason the effects in that film look so remarkable is because Cameron never used the same trick twice. He’s referring to the idea that no one method should be used to create a believable effect. Instead, utilizing several different tools and methods (CGI, practical, models etc.) will always yield the best results. The effects of Underwater are exceptional because they understood the importance of variety.
The creatures in the film are terrifying and they are used to great effect by being very selective about when they’re shown. You don’t even catch a glimpse of them for the first half of the film. The lead up to their reveal is cleverly calculated. Most of the time our characters are flying blind, not having any idea of what awaits them outside the vessel. All they have to go off of are the intermittent sounds of rattling and clanking of metal above. Sound itself plays a big role in the film and it’s used to conjure up some ghastly images in our heads. When we finally see the unknown lifeform, it’s only in short, quick moments, which are usually distorted by outside debris and darkness. This leaves the viewer’s imagination active, while still providing a tease of what the creature looks like. It’s this very cinematic scare tactic that made Jaws (1975) so frightening. The film’s finale does show us more than I would have liked, but it’s still a relatively unclear image, hard to make out details. I also love how the film gives hardly any indication that this is a creature feature at all. All of the promotional footage I saw prior to the film’s release kept things pretty vague with the actual threat.
Underwater came and went very quickly. It didn’t even blip on most people’s radars. It’s a shame, because this is an extremely well-made film on both a technical level and as a horror film. Its plot isn’t particularly unique and there have been several films that attempt what Underwater is doing, but it does exactly what it sets out to do and does it very well. This is an underrated gem that fell victim to a host of issues that were clearly out of Eubank’s hands. Underwater sits in a respectable spot among my favorite movies of 2020, and I highly recommend it to anyone who has a hankering for a solid 90-minute thrill ride seven miles down.
By Jeffrey W. Hollingsworth