We’re not even halfway through January and Hollywood has already given us not one, but two, new horror movies. A second go-around at Americanizing The Grudge bombed hard with critics and the box office. And early signs are bleak for Kristen Stewart’s aquatic horror movie, Underwater. As the weekend’s box office receipts roll in, Underwater looks to fall well short of its production budget. Moreover, some critics have dismissed it as water-logged Alien knock-off. But who doesn’t like a good monster movie? In spite of its weak box office, does Underwater deliver enough popcorn thrills to merit a trip to the theatre?
Seven miles at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, Tian Industries has constructed a large underwater facility to drill for resources. When massive tremors cause a pressure breach, Tian’s Kepler 822 research station collapses, killing most of the crew. With no remaining escape pods, Kepler Station’s survivors must put on pressurized suits and walk to the neighbouring Roebuck Station. But they’re no alone – something released by the drilling is stalking them across the ocean’s floor.
Underwater a Leanly Paced, Tense Thriller
Writers Brian Duffield (The Babysitter) and Adam Cozad eschew a traditional first act. As a result, Underwater ‘dives’ into the action almost immediately and, with few exceptions, rarely lets up over its 95 minutes. Not surprisingly, Eubank’s cinematography background shines through in Underwater. From its brilliantly filmed opening disaster, director William Eubank maintains a firm grasp on both the action and suspense elements of his movie. Stakes are set early and Eubanks proceeds to treat audiences to several riveting moments, exploiting the movie’s claustrophobic and dark setting. Underwater uses the full screen as the movie’s ‘sea creatures’ appear in corners and the background. One standout scene where the survivors must walk through a nest of sleeping monsters is ‘edge-of-your-seat’ tension.
…Underwater clearly shares DNA with Ridley Scott’s classic sci-fi/horror film.
With mixed reviews, critics have written off Underwater as an Alien rip-off. And yes, Underwater clearly shares DNA with Ridley Scott’s classic sci-fi/horror film. Both movies revolve around an unknown species stalking a ‘vessel’s crew’ in a claustrophobic setting. Additionally, Underwater has its ‘Ellen Ripley’ and evil corporation. But so do a lot of horror movies. In fact, it may share more in common with Neil Marshall’s The Descent. Regardless, the comparison are more than a little unfair. Underwater’s relentless pacing, atmosphere, and strong cinematography earn the movie its own place in the genre.
Missing First Act a Double-Edged Sword
If Underwater has a problem, it’s that missing first act. On the one hand, it’s a tense, lean roller-coaster ride of a movie. It never comes across as just another ‘B-monster movie’. And unlike lesser movies of its type, Underwater doesn’t drip with heavy-handed expository dialogue. But it accomplishes these things at the expense of character and mythology. We know next to nothing about the movie’s monsters, and just slightly more about its characters. Both Alien and The Descent were slow-burn thrillers that fleshed out their characters and engaged in subtle world-building. In contrast, Underwater plays out very much like a roller-coaster – it’s exciting during the ride, but when it’s over, it’s over. It lacks the emotional resonance of its predecessors.
Underwater Shows Kristen Stewart’s Range
Since Kristen Stewart broke through in the deservedly maligned Twilight series, she’s worked hard to distance herself from ‘Bella Swan’. And she’s more than demonstrated her talent in a range of eclectic, small films. Unfortunately, Stewart has found herself in two box office bombs in a span of just a few months. But even critics unimpressed with the movie itself should still tip their hat to Stewart. She’s absolutely fantastic in the movie, demonstrating both strength and vulnerability. If Underwater is doomed to be labeled an Alien clone, then Stewart was certainly a worth ‘Ellen Ripley’.
She’s absolutely fantastic in the movie, demonstrating both strength and vulnerability.
Though Underwater doesn’t develop its characters, the supporting performances are universally strong. The always reliable Vincent Cassel gives a commanding, sympathetic performance as the crew’s ‘Captain Lucien’. Liberal doses of humour, courtesy of T.J. Miller, keep Underwater from drowning in dreary seriousness. Yet outside of Kristen Stewart, Jessica Henwick (Iron Fist, Game of Thrones) shines. Underwater doesn’t give her much, but Henwick still carves out a meaningful supporting character. There’s a reason Marvel fans wanted a ‘Colleen Wing and Misty Knight’ Netflix series.
Underwater Deserves a Better Fate
It’s surprising just how divisive Underwater has proven among critics. And its dumping in January as studios unroll their big awards contenders (i.e., 1917) suggests that 20th Century Fox lacked confidence in their own movie. Even with its similarities to Alien and thin character development, Underwater is far better than its Rotten Tomatoes score. Like last year’s Crawl, Underwater delivers 95 minutes of lean, monster movie action and suspense. It’s not likely to make any ‘Best of’ lists, but it’s beautifully filmed popcorn thriller deserving of a trip to the box office.