Movie Review: Underwater
By Matthew Huntley
January 25, 2020
“Underwater, no one can hear you scream.” This might as well have been the tagline for “Underwater”; it rips everything else off from “Alien,” why not the marketing material too?
Movie travesties such as this make it difficult for even a review of it to be interesting. “Underwater” is bad in such a pure sense of the word that expounding on it any further seems pointless. This is simply a case of bad storytelling, although I wouldn’t go so far as to call the movie offensive, maybe because, despite its flaws, I believe the filmmakers were just too naïve to know they were making something so ineffective and dull. Nevertheless, their naivete costs viewers time that could have been spent doing something else.
The long and short of William Eubanks’ “Underwater” is that it is, in fact, a rip-off of Ridley Scott’s “Alien,” only it takes place under water instead of outer space. And because it’s a rip-off, it stands to reason it’s also inferior. “Alien,” many would agree, is a tense, patient and atmospheric thriller that builds tension over time, with interesting, enigmatic characters, most of whom the film doesn’t predictably label as eventual victims.
“Underwater,” by comparison, feels like it’s in a rush and is often jarring and confusing with regard to its framing and imagery, making it hard to following what’s happening and to whom. Not that we care about the latter point all that much, because the characters here are one-dimensional and function more as archetypes than actual people. They adhere to such stale and antiquated conventions of the genre that one of the most shocking things about “Underwater” is that its makers thought the way its people are written is acceptable, such as *SPOILER ALERT* the lone black character being the first to die. Not even “Alien,” which came out over 30 years ago, succumbed to this racist notion, which is one trait I wish “Underwater” had stolen.
If you’re at all curious about the story, it opens with a series of news clippings that tell us Tian Industries, which supposedly prides itself on worker safety, is drilling several miles into the Marian Trench, the deepest trench in the Pacific Ocean and the world. Fade in on a vast, rickety station interconnected by large tubes resting on the ocean floor. Inside, it’s quiet, dank and depressing, with rusted walls, flickering lights and old-fashioned posters promoting best work practices.
Here we meet Norah Pride (Kristen Stewart), standing alone and brushing her teeth, whose inner monologue lets us know she’s a “glass half empty” type person as she reminisces about a man we assume was her former lover. With her blonde shaved head and suspicious demeanor, Norah appears sad, rebellious and cautious, which isn’t too far removed from Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley in “Alien.”And just like Ripley, Norah is smart and resourceful. Her skills as a mechanical engineer are quickly put to the test when an earthquake shakes the station and causes a fatal breach. Water starts flooding in from every which way and only Norah and Rodrigo (Mamoudou Athie) are able to seal themselves off in a protected area, leaving other crew members to perish.
Once Norah and Rodrigo regain their wits, they begin climbing and crawling their way toward the escape pod bay. Along the way, they stumble upon Paul (T.J. Miller), another engineer, who’s buried and bleeding under rubble, although his current physical state doesn’t stop him from making jokes and sarcastic remarks, which, for us, quickly proves obnoxious.
Eventually, Norah, Rodrigo and Paul unite with the station’s other remaining survivors: biologist Emily (Jessica Henwick); engineer Smith (John Gallagher Jr.) and Captain Lucien (Vincent Cassel). Lucien informs the group there are no escape pods left at their current location and therefore orders everyone to put on a pressurized suit because they’re going to walk the one mile across the ocean floor to the next station over, a plan that doesn’t sit too well each member, but they’ve no other choice if they want to survive.
At the risk of giving too much away, which isn’t a big deal if you’ve seen “Alien,” the crew’s journey under the sea doesn’t go so swimmingly, and not just because of the harsh, high-pressure environment, which introduces its own morbid problems (including bodies exploding), but because they pick up a disturbing distress signal. This leads them to an escape pod with a rotting corpse inside, which is apparently now serving as the host and/or food source for…well, let’s just call it a new kind of species, the looks of which aren’t all the different from, you guessed it, the creature from “Alien”: slimy; slithery; large head; tentacles; sharp teeth; starts out small but grows to become a full-fledged monster, etc. It’s a good thing Emily the biologist is around to speculate what this new life form is and how it possibly came about, which thankfully gives her something to do besides look scared and shriek.
Needless to say, the creature, which was supposedly awakened by the earthquake, or the drilling, or both (it doesn’t matter), isn’t friendly, and for the rest of the movie, in a painstakingly routine and redundant manner, the characters try to fend it off while also making their way up to the surface. Who among them makes the final cut I’ll not reveal, but one of things that makes “Underwater” so disappointing is that it doesn’t give a real reason to care. The hackneyed screenplay by Brian Duffield and Adam Cozad make the characters, their histories, their relationships, and their current situation so uninteresting that I was surprised the movie only clocked in at 95 minutes, because it feels a lot longer. The whole time, it fails to make us curious about anything or anyone, and I’m sure it’s due to it merely recycling gimmicks and clichés associated with the science fiction horror genre. It brings nothing new to the table and goes through the motions so habitually that it almost seems this was the filmmakers’ intentions, which is boring.
On a technical level, Naaman Marshall’s production design and Bojan Bazelli’s cinematography are detailed enough that they might have imbued the paper-thin story with sufficient visual flair to at least give our eyes something to focus on, since the plot developments and dialogue offer little in the way of making the story cerebral. Even some more daring and graphic gore sequences may have salvaged the movie somewhat. But the filmmakers appear to have been charged keeping things tepid, perhaps for the sake of earning a PG-13 rating. However, this still doesn’t explain why the non-horror scenes look so murky, poorly framed and disjointed. Whatever the reasoning behind it, the filmmakers’ ineptitude for coherent and exciting storytelling leads to our simply waiting things out until the credits roll.
Movies as second-rate as “Underwater” are the least fun to write about because there’s nothing particularly noteworthy about them. Their incompetence simply boils down to their trying and failing to steal from better films that came before them, and so there’s little mystery about why they flounder; they just do. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that “Underwater” is such a stinker, since January is considered one of Hollywood’s most notorious “dump months” as far as quality is concerned. Even so, as someone who likes to write film reviews, I was hoping it would have given me more to work with than this. I’ll take a bad movie that’s bad in a curious way over one that’s bad in a humdrum way.