Written by: Brian Duffield & Adam Cozad
Starring: Kristen Stewart, Vincent Cassel, Jessica Henwick, John Gallagher Jr., Mamoudou Athie
Achieving the impossible has become a driving force for human innovation, which has propelled us to curing diseases and landing on the moon. One place we can never fully capture and conquer remains the deep depths of the ocean. We will never be aware of everything residing down there, which in turn makes it deeply terrifying. Underwater takes us deep into these waters and shows us why we should not try and harvest from every corner of this planet.
Working as a mechanical engineer for a drilling corporation on the ocean floor, Norah (Kristen Stewart) experiences an earthquake, which heavily damages her facility. As she attempts to gather survivors to get to safety, they begin to encounter some strange movement in the unknown water around them.
Serving in the mold of both Alien and The Abyss, 2020 has provided us with Underwater, an inferior version of both. I enjoyed the premise of this film because it took ideas from two great films, but it misses out on what made them great. One way it begins to crumble comes from the inclusion of T.J. Miller. Now, I’m not commenting on the alleged horrid behavior some have raised about him on a personal level, but his performance in this feature became such a distraction. From the very beginning, this story begins with a serious tone because of the peril involved and the mystery of there potentially being dangerous creatures out in the water. In that respect, it works, but the introduction of Miller’s character, Paul, created my biggest fear. The character of Paul serves as comic relief for all of the seriousness, which was unnecessary for the story and only got worse with each joking completely whiffing. He would undercut every serious moment with such terrible jokes and it did not land in the “it’s so bad it becomes funny” camp. It made me wish the creatures could just get rid of him for my own sanity.
This film does succeed in depicting the difficulty of operating essentially on the ocean floor. Basic science tells us humans cannot survive that deep in the water due to the water pressure, which makes any moment stepping out into the water perilous. One scene, in particular, demonstrates what happens when one character uses gear incorrectly and instantly bursts from the sheer amount of water pressure that deep in the ocean. It’s gross but definitely describes what would occur in this particular circumstance.
With the setting being the bottom of the ocean, it makes sense any time they traverse in the water that darkness would surround them. Unfortunately, with it having horror elements, the attempts at creating mystery left everything looking incredibly muddled. I found myself squinting to try to discern details in the darkness. It took away from the desired impact even with the intention of coming from a good place. This murkiness made me want to skip to when they get indoors once again, but I also knew most of the action and horror would be taking place out in the water anyway.
The message of the film comes through loud and clear to the point where one of the characters outright tells us. With our ambitions, humanity has pushed our surroundings to our limits. Underwater takes place in a future where drilling for resources occurs in areas we have never reached before, which most likely indicates other wells have run dry. Pushing the limits all the way to the ocean floor awakens something hidden down there and the poor employees of this corporation must pay the price for this level of greed. At no point during the story do we get the perspective of the people calling the shots. It remains grounded on the workers in these facilities just doing their jobs. Most of the focus lands on the character of Nora portrayed by Kristen Stewart. We get to hear her inner thoughts as she processes how being so deep in the water eliminates the possibility of knowing whether it’s morning or evening. Focusing on these everyday but still exceptional people adds to the unfairness of the situation and how badly we want them to survive.
I will never say no to a look of the unknown ecosystem of the bottom of the ocean, but Underwater stumbles on far too many occasions as it reaches its conclusion. The character deaths became so predictable that it got to the point where my wife and I laid out exactly who would die, survive, and what order it would all take place. I got a perfect score because of how much this takes from other far superior and effective films. This attempt of a monster flick does nothing particularly well and just drudges its way to an ending I could see from a mile away.