Starring: Kristen Stewart, Vincent Cassel, Jessica Henwick, John Gallagher Jr., Mamoudou Athie, T.J, Miller
Director: William Eubank
Screenplay: Brian Duffield & Adam Cozad
Story by: Brian Duffield
Producers: Peter Chernin, Tonia Davis & Jenno Topping
Music by: Marco Beltrami & Brandon Roberts
Cinematographer: Bojan Bazelli
Editor: Todd E. Miller, Brian Berdan & William Hoy
Production Company: TSG Entertainment & Chernin Entertainment
Distributed by: 20th Century Studios
Genre: Horror/Science Fiction/Thriller/Action
Rated: 14A (Ontario)/PG-13 (United States) - Violence, Frightening Scenes, Coarse Language
Release Date: January 10, 2020
Run Time: 95 minutes
You could be forgiven if you didn't know about the sci-fi horror picture Underwater, even though it was a major studio 2020 release. The movie was made under 20th Century Fox, but when Disney bought the studio, they showed how little they cared about this movie by burying it deep into the ocean known as January with limited promotion. It also didn't fare well with many critics and never really found an audience. This means many horror fans missed out on one of the surprise delights of 2020.
In this IP obsessed era, it is rare that you see a mainstream movie that isn't already attached to a known 'brand'. Underwater feels like something that would have come out in the 1980s, because it is a movie that has the familiar beats of a past hit but tweaks it to be its own thing. Rather than getting another Alien sequel, prequel or remake, we get a deep ocean disaster flick mixed with creature feature that follows the formula and captures the claustrophobia of a crew being picked off by a dangerous unknown prey.
Underwater leans in on out nostalgia for the Alien series rather than actually making a new chapter, which means it can avoid the traps of fan service or needing to honour mythology but still pleasing fans by delivering that kind of movie. The differences are more than a new creature design and the Mariana Trench as a setting instead of outer space, as the picture subverts a few expectations and offers some twists. It also doesn't follow conventional strategy of trying to set-up a sequel, but rather boldly lands as a stand-alone story.
Director William Eubank delivers a cinematic panic attack right from the start as the deep-water drilling station is seriously damaged and the crew are racing against time in order to get to safety. The movie is a creature feature, but the characters also must battle a treacherous environment, faulty equipment, and natural disasters along with the mysterious blood-thirsty monsters. Eubanks implements numerous quick cuts that sometimes makes it hard to follow the action, but that enhances the narrative as we empathize with the disoriented and frightened crew who struggle to find a place of safety. Where the film lacks in plot is compensated by an immersive and visceral experience thanks to the unsettling score, high energy editing, quick pacing and strong performances.
Kristen Stewart still seems to be haunted by the stink of Twilight for some, but I feel her last several years of work have proven she is a great dramatic actor. This time she perfectly slides into the Ellen Ripley or Sarah Connor role of tough woman that needs to take control of a bad situation and won't back down from the evil. She proves very capable as a badass action star and brings nuance to a character that isn't really written with too much depth. Stewart's Norah Price is a pessimist haunted by a past relationship, and as the story unfolds, she becomes someone that starts putting more value on life and is fighting for the survival of herself and the crew. Stewart conveys a broken person who gradually builds strength and toughness. Stewart is the human connection that brings reality to draw in the viewer in the fight against monsters.
Being thrown right into the action means the character revelations come from how they respond to adversity and reveals how they deal with the threat of death. Admittedly, the characters aren't very complex with T.J. Miller being the wise-cracking goof-off, Jesse Gallagher Jr. the faithful and sacrificial boyfriend, Jessica Henwick is the panic-stricken character who proves to be stronger than first impressions, Vincent Cassel is the fatherly captain who puts his crew ahead of himself and Mamoudou Athi is the loyal friend to Stewart. Everyone brings a great energy and like any good horror, it is more about how characters respond to the threat than the actual monsters.
The picture is smart with its use of special effects by teasing the monsters for most of the movie. When you do see them then they are moving quickly to not linger on them and are often blurred in the murky darkness. There appearances are still satisfying and frightening, but the movie is well-aware the fun is in the building tension rather trying to overstretch its visual ability.
The movie devolves a little into a last act creature battle but then picks up right at the finale. In the end, it is less about how tough the hero is against the monster but rather making strong character decisions and seeking redemption, which are the traits in good horror pictures. There is an oddly bookended narration that seems to be shorthand for a character arc that wasn't needed due to Stewart's stellar performance that shows everything that is told. The biggest flaw of the movie, as this review has proven, is that it can't escape its Alien comparisons. It has enough twists and turns that it battled its way into being its own thing.
Even though this movie didn't connect with audiences or critics, there are things studios could learn from it. There is a lot value in taking familiar and popular concepts rather than outright returning to a well-known series. Underwater delivers what fans of the classic want but also has the freedom to become its own thing. If watching a crew trying to get back to the surface while avoiding nasty monsters sounds like a great way to spend your evening, then dive in for Underwater.