Kristen Stewart proves she’s a badass movie star in Underwater, a long-delayed and surprisingly decent deep-sea horror/thriller from director William Eubank. While it stands to be the second big-budget box-office disaster in a row for Stewart after Charlie’s Angels, it deserves a better fate: The movie is actually pretty good.
The film doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel or work any miracles. It’s successful in a very basic way that engages from beginning to end, with an occasional effective scare, a constant sense of dread and high-pressure tension.
Stewart stars as Norah, an underwater engineer on a drilling rig in the middle of the Mariana Trench. We first see her brushing her teeth as the lights around her flicker, and then we hear some dull thuds. She glances around; she plays a little with a spider in the sink. She doesn’t seem too concerned.
Then, “Boom!” Her section of the rig implodes, blasting water all around her as she and another crew member narrowly escape into a temporary safe place … and by temporary, we mean for the next 30 seconds or so.
Norah makes her way through the quickly mounting disaster, meeting up with other crew members (including T.J. Miller, here for comic relief in a movie made well before his personal controversies made him a casting no-no). The vessel’s captain (a strong Vincent Cassel) hatches a plan involving big diving suits and walking on the ocean floor toward a safer zone. The group reluctantly goes along.
It’s not an earthquake or volcanic eruption that has caused their work home to be compromised: Instead, sea creatures of unexplained origin—some the size of the chest-burster in Alien, some of more Godzilla-type proportions—are menacing the rig and occasionally dining on humans. Jaws-style, the creatures are slowly but surely introduced, until a finale that is full of monsters.
Eubank stocks his cast with talent (including Jessica Henwick of Game of Thrones and John Gallagher Jr.), including a lot of actors who can say a lot in just the way they look, so long periods of exposition aren’t needed for the audience to immediately care about them. The movie never lets up, and while it doesn’t possess a remarkable screenplay or anything resembling emotional depth, the action is fierce, and the characters register.
In fact, had the screenplay provided one more solid, apocalyptic twist or shift, this film could’ve been very good. There were moments when I thought Eubank might offer up some sort of Twilight Zone shocker, but, alas, the movie is just about people running away from sea monsters. They run away in style, but that’s all that really happens.
The monsters themselves are mostly seen through dark, murky water. Normally, not allowing a full view of a monster would infuriate me, but it works here, much in the same way it did with the cave-dwellers in The Descent. Because we witness much of the action as if we were part of the escaping crew, we often see the monsters lit by flashlights or through suit visors. It works, for the most part. However, the studio (Fox, owned by Disney) erred in deciding to make this PG-13. It needed to be an R-rated film.
Stewart provides the film with a nice center of gravity, creating a character who is clearly scared shitless, yet realistically under control. She shaved her head for the role; Norah would have that haircut because it makes sense given the living conditions, rather than it being an attempt to look tough.
So, it’s January, when studios release films in which they have no faith (along with awards contenders getting their wide releases after limited runs, like 1917 and Just Mercy). Underwater definitely fits the bill as a long delayed, question mark of a movie. Fortunately, for genre fans, it doesn’t suck. It’s passably good, and I can safely say it has no moments I would categorize as bad. It’s a good, old-fashioned, please-monster-don’t-eat-me movie, and I will gladly take one of those every now and then.
Underwater is playing at theaters across the valley.