Underwater is a new ocean-based horror thriller from director William Eubank, and was written by Brian Duffield and Adam Cozad, with Duffield receiving story credits. It stars Kristen Stewart as Norah, a young mechanical engineer working on the lower floors of an oil drill located in the Mariana Trench (a.k.a. the deepest part of the ocean), which is grinding away at the bottom of said trench in an effort to secrete oil from the earth, as well as find out what else could be down there and what it could be worth. When disaster strikes the station as structural problems begin to take their toll, the ocean causes it to begin collapsing on top of Norah and her colleagues, threatening to bury them if they aren’t fast enough to get down to the floors that haven’t been crushed inwards by the water, and forcing them to flee to safety by walking across the bottom of the ocean to a different station which is supposedly unaffected by whatever occurred. What did occur, though, is somewhat unclear, and not long after they’ve left the tenuous safety of their original station, the crew begins to suspect that the disaster from whence they just escaped may have, in fact, not been a simple structural failure at all. With insufficient oxygen, and only a few feet of sight to work with seven miles below the ocean’s surface, the crew must slowly make their way to the other station without losing each other to either the elements around them or whatever dark horrors lie in front of their next few steps. This movie also stars Jessica Henwick, T.J. Miller, Vincent Cassel, John Gallagher Jr., and Mamoudou Athie.
When I first saw the trailer for this movie as it was released in 2019, I didn’t quite know what to make of it; sure, Kristen Stewart is a solid actress and this would more than likely give her a large enough screen presence in the mainstream again for people to finally stop making that way outdated “facial expressions” joke, and I like the vibe of trying “Alien, but in the ocean,” but January horror movies are almost their own entire genre of bad and generic at this point, so I wasn’t fully sure what to expect. Plus, T.J. Miller is in it, which should give anyone pause at this point (although it was shot before all of his…stuff…happened, so I really can’t blame anyone on this movie for that). Sometimes, though, on admittedly rare occasions, a diamond in the rough can come out of a place it really shouldn’t have been put in, and we get to witness something truly creative and special in its own way, something new and perhaps somewhat impressive. To be fair, Underwater isn’t anything particularly special or new or even all that interesting in hindsight once any “monster” reveals the movie has are done, but that doesn’t mean the movie doesn’t have its merits, and frankly, it’s hardly the snooze early January horror turns out to be.
One of the things that makes this movie work as well as it does is its mostly break-neck pacing. I probably would have appreciated a little more set-up in regards to character development or worldbuilding, but for a film as short and simple as this, jumping right into the action and figuring out what’s going on through characters’ confusion works well enough for me too. Eubank dives right into the story, and within the first five minutes of the film, we’ve already experienced two crew members die (though not any members belonging to the main cast), and seen most of the aftermath of what’s been done to the station. That’s about as tight and trim as storytelling gets, and I appreciate that Eubank doesn’t feel a need to use Stewart’s narration to tell us information that we already know from visual cues. It’s a drill at the bottom of the ocean, and one of its surrounding structures is collapsing, which is dangerous. That’s all we need to know, and at first, that’s all we’re given to know. Any information we learn afterwards, such as the physical makeup of the unseen sea creatures (which the film wisely hides from view most of the time), complications the crew have getting to the other station, or backstory, is mostly learned as the characters learn it, making it feel as if we, too, are on this journey through the horrors of the unexplored.
The entire cast turns in really solid work as well. Mamoudou Athie and Vincent Cassel both make the most of their time on screen, John Gallagher Jr. and Jessica Henwick have really good chemistry as a somewhat new couple trying to survive this disaster together, and T.J. Miller is…well, he’s T.J. Miller, but at the time, that wasn’t a bad thing, and his comic relief is refreshingly toned down this time around. Really, though, this movie belongs to Kristen Stewart, and even without a ton of development or detail to work with, she brings a gravitas to the proceedings that may not win Oscars, but certainly makes the case for her being a mainstream star again. She’s genuinely good here, and I know everyone still like to make Twilight jokes (well, anyone under the age of 16, anyway), but come on; Stewart has been a bit of a darling on the indie scene for a while now, so it shouldn’t surprise anyone that she’s good here too, and yet, her commitment to pulling this off reminds me why she is one of the most interesting actresses working today when given the right material. It’s not an awards-caliber performance by any stretch, but it does put her back in the limelight in a very positive way. Not everyone can pull off the “Ripley from Alien 3 but slightly more grimy” look, but not only does Stewart pull it off, she elevates it beyond that sort of description into a character all her own.
Unfortunately, the lack of development for most of these characters (as well as a noticeable shortage of quiet moments to get to know them in between all the tension) does ultimately hurt the film’s lean tone, and I found myself coming out of the film liking what I had seen, but not really thinking about it all that much afterwards except in regards to my writing this review about it. I like all the characters on screen as I was watching them, but didn’t really feel for almost any of them, even in their potential peril. For a horror film like this, the scares need to be good, absolutely, but we also need characters we can hold onto, and apart from Henwick and Stewart, there’s virtually no development in any other relationships the film presents.
The movie is also just a touch too dry on the thematic side. They try to set up a message about deep sea oil drilling in the beginning, but the movie is so focused on getting to the horror elements of its own story that it doesn’t really do anything with that except hand it to you and expect you to know what to get out of it, without ever explaining what it is that’s actually in it besides just the word “environmentalism.” I understand the sentiment without a doubt, but introducing a theme like that in a movie like this is the easy thing to do; following your story through to the end as you stick with that theme is the hard part, and it felt like something from the second draft that was added to improve the story, but then forgotten about by the time the third draft rolled off the printer.
Underwater isn’t great, but it didn’t have to be in order to be enjoyable, and as movie theater entertainment goes, it’s pretty solid. It’s a good premise that trims all the fat (sometimes at a cost to itself) and has a fun time despite some noticeable imperfections and filmmaking missteps, which is hard enough to do, making its flop at the box office all the more disappointing; just “pretty good” horror movies are still better than outright bad ones, especially in January, so yeah, definitely check this one out if you get the chance.
I’m giving “Underwater” a 6.4/10
- The Friendly Film Fan
Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time. Writer for Bitesize Breakdown.