Review: ‘Underwater’ has deep setting, shallow characters
by Daniel Rester
‘Underwater’ feels straight out of the year 1989, when deep-sea science fiction and horror were big for some reason. The best of that bunch is James Cameron’s ‘The Abyss,’ while ‘Leviathan’ is pretty good, ‘DeepStar Six’ is okay, and ‘Lords of the Deep’ is terrible. While it is no ‘The Abyss’ in terms of quality, ‘Underwater’ at least treads water next to ‘Leviathan’ and doesn’t sink to the depths of ‘Lords of the Deep.’
Directed by William Eubank (‘The Signal’ (2014)), ‘Underwater’ wastes no time in getting going. After showing us quick bits about a company called Tian Industries having a drilling facility in the Mariana Trench, we’re introduced to mechanical engineer Norah (Kristen Stewart) right before part of that facility has a major breech. She meets up with a few fellow survivors, with the roles filled by likable actors like Vincent Cassel (as the captain), John Gallagher Jr., Jessica Henwick, and T.J. Miller.
Norah and the others decide they must walk across the ocean floor in pressurized suits in order to make it to another part of the facility that has escape pods. Once they set off, not only do they have to deal with darkness, pressure, and Miller’s character’s hit-and-miss comic relief, but also mysterious and violent creatures that have emerged. Most of the plot revolves around this trek.
Eubank and his team do a fine job of putting meat on the bones of the thin script. ‘Underwater’ has a tense and muddy atmosphere, with fine visual effects and expert sound design. The drips in the cracked walls, the groans of the suits underwater, and more all come through the theater speakers magnificently. The creatures themselves are cool as well, being humanoid squid things; one character aptly says they look like Slender Man.
While the cast here is solid, the characters in the deep ocean setting remain surface level themselves. We learn a little about Norah from some narration, but most of the others are only defined by one or two things. The captain has a young daughter, the biologist has a Corgi, etc.
Stewart has proven over the last few years with strong independent films that she has a lot to offer in her post-‘Twilight’ career. Here, however, she feels a bit awkward and out of place; the blonde Slim Shady hair on her is a strange choice too. Best here is probably Cassel, one of our best actors who can disappear into any role.
‘Underwater’ is no game-changing splash in the horror genre, but it’s a fun aquatic thriller that feels like the type of creature movies Hollywood used to make more often.
My Grade: 6.5/10 (B-)
MPA Rating: PG-13 (for sci-fi action and terror, and brief strong language)
Running Time: 1h 35min
USA Release Date: January 10th, 2020
*Part of this review will feature in an upcoming book on horror movies by Daniel Rester.