During a live-streamed Q & A that followed the advanced screening of Underwater, moderator (and It director) Andy Muschietti desperately tried to get some of the actors to admit to subtle character choices made during the new horror film’s quieter moments, but the participating cast wasn’t having it. Mostly in a jovial mood, half-jokingly discussing how much of a “sh*t show” it was acting in the movie, actors Kristen Stewart and Mamoudou Athie eventually gave Muschietti something to work with.
And while Stewart recovered admirably, discussing people in workplace relationships/friendships and how there is a disconnect sometimes even with people you see every day, it all felt like Muschietti was reaching for meaning in a film whose existence is pretty simple: show ocean creatures harassing people.
This isn’t a knock on the movie but more a statement on trying to dive too deep (pun-like phrase intended) for meaning in something not aiming to mean anything. Sometimes, as Freud said, a movie is just a movie. And Underwater is most certainly a movie. Not a good one or a bad one. Just…one.
In Underwater, we meet our hero Norah (Stewart) from the jump. An engineer assigned to a massive underwater research facility (and dig site) seven miles below sea level, we see Norah saving a spider from a watery death in the bathroom sink, wondering why a spider has come out from the sink so deep in the facility in the first place, a not so subtle foreshadowing of things to come. Then an entire section of her workplace explodes, allowing tons of water to come in at a fast pace. She and crewmate Rodrigo (Athie) manage to escape into a safe section of the facility but watch as many of their fellow crew die.
Assembling with other survivors, including the rig’s captain (Vincent Cassel), research student Emily (Jessica Henwick), her boyfriend technician (John Gallagher Jr) and goofball T.J. Miller, the group realizes they must abandon their section of the base as it slowly collapses and travel, partially in the dank and dark seafloor depths, to another base of operations in order to survive. The fact that the small group of employees is mostly just blue-collar workers and not trained divers is bad enough but something also lurks in the sea outside—an unknown species of animal—that begins to hunt the crew on their way to safety.
Underwater is an amalgam of six or seven different types of movies. The opening credits sequence starts eerily similar to the most recent Godzilla movies, with newspaper clippings and classified reports explaining the deep-sea crew’s endeavors at the ocean floor. It then merges into a Die Hard (on a rig)/Day After Tomorrow/Alien mashup, showing Kristen Stewart, with a nearly shaved head and stocking feet, attempting to survive a continually collapsing sea base, promising a distressing drowning at every right turn.
And then it gets very Alien, as our intrepid crew becomes targeted by something from below the ocean floor. Cue Saruman in Lord of the Rings where “they dug too deep and too greedily” and discovered something of this world but not meant to be found. Despite the mixture of genre types, including undersea horror, sci-fi, monster/kaiju, drama, action, the film follows a pretty simple A-B-C structure and demands nothing from the audience except thrills. Hence why Muschietti’s pressing of the actors on subtle acting choices seems far-fetched. This movie is as advertised: people running (and swimming) for their lives. Nothing else.
And while there is a missed opportunity with the unique setting (there was room for more atmospheric terror to be had), director William Eubanks does yeoman’s work with the limited material he has. The first 30 minutes of the film, which mostly involve Norah escaping parts of the rig by squeezing into increasingly smaller and tighter spaces, is a nightmare for claustrophobes and effectively chilling. The monster sequences suffer from a lack of originality and perhaps rely too heavily on jump scares, but Eubanks keeps you, at the very least, on the edge of your seat.
Where the film does exceed expectations is with its production design, most especially the costumes. The diving suits used by the actors are phenomenal to see. Athie compared them to Gundam suits in anime while I noticed strong homages to video games like Bioshock and Mass Effect. The look and feel of the tech is certainly Underwater’s best attribute, with the compelling score by Marco Beltrami and Brandon Roberts coming it at a close second.
While I was impressed with the marketing for the film, which doesn’t give away too much, Underwater’s proceedings should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with this brand of film. While the early January release date indicates this to be a failure, Underwater exceeds those expectations as being competent and well designed. But don’t expect any molds to be broken. Monsters chase humans in the ocean? Goal accomplished.