Directed by William Eubank.
Starring Kristen Stewart, T. J. Miller, Vincent Cassel, John Gallagher Jr., Jessica Henwick, Mamoudou Athie, and Gunner Wright.
A crew of aquatic researchers work to get to safety after an earthquake devastates their subterranean laboratory. But the crew has more than the ocean seabed to fear.
Underwater certainly wastes no time, as a section of the drill site completely ruptures minutes into the movie barely allowing Kristen Stewart’s Norah to finish her introductory monologue regarding the misplaced flow of time from months of aquatic life and isolation. Much like something out of a video game, Norah and another crew member run for their lives through hallway after hallway avoiding bursts of water and objects flying in every direction, eventually finding a measure of brief safety where they reunite with a coworker buried underneath the rubble (T.J. Miller doing his usual obnoxious companion routine). From there, they make their way through claustrophobic spaces to locate the captain (Vincent Cassel) to put their heads together and collectively decipher just what the hell is going on.
The word linear comes to mind watching Underwater, as it’s essentially just a series of set pieces where its characters must get from location to location while managing the crumbling structures around them and the mysterious sea creatures threatening to kill them. It’s also a case where the fewer the characters on screen, the better. If this were an entire movie that saw Norah and Mamoudou Athie’s characters working together to survive, communicating with one another and developing along the way while uncovering secrets, who knows what Underwater could have been. The direction from William Eubank clearly works best within confined spaces, minimalist storytelling (the absolute lack of plot exposition for anything here is wonderful), and the fine performances from Kristen Stewart and Mamoudou Athie. One of the greatest tricks Underwater pulls off is that we immediately care about these people because of the talent putting in good work.
And then some more characters are introduced, one dies off, the comedic relief for some reason becomes the focus of the movie for about 30 minutes (during this entire stretch Kristen Stewart is lucky if she has two or three lines), and the scope of the production expands to something more resembling a standard blockbuster. That’s not to say that T.J. Miller isn’t funny (he once again is, so it’s a shame he turned out to be a terrible human being), or that the escalating action isn’t intriguing (the payoff to this is assuredly satisfying with some worthy CGI work), but that all of the established roots are done away with one by one as the film transitions into a traditionally entertaining and audience-friendly.
While Underwater is not necessarily a movie that needs strong characters emotionally, it is jarring that Norah’s reason for being here and doing anything is explained away during a random conversation with Jessica Henwick’s Emily (there’s also a shot of female friendship and bonding that culminates with a hardened heroic moment during the climax). If anything, it’s probably for the best considering dread and tension is where the craft on display excels, whether it be watching these characters investigate a potentially dead body or attempt to quietly walk past a wide-open room filled with aquatic monsters hanging from the ceiling begging to be woken up by the slightest amount of noise. Writers Brian Duffield and Adam Cozad seem more interested in feeding T.J. Miller jokes than creating characters.
It’s also worth mentioning that there is at least one earned jump scare, but not without restraint for frequently resorting to such cheap tactics. The downside is that some of these scenarios lead to action sequences where the filmmakers are in over their heads, occasionally unable to make sense out of the blurry underwater chaos.
Meanwhile, some information before both the opening and closing credits deliver some political messaging that is out of place, especially when you factor in what the crew is up against during the finale. To say that Underwater consists of multiple concepts and ideas smashed together would be accurate, but the cast and crew definitely have some idea of how to make it work. Aside from one or two battles at the bottom of the ocean that are incoherent, the rest is entertaining with a take-charge badass performance from Kristen Stewart. Remember, it’s not just water that will suffocate you, but the dread as well.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com