Review of Underwater

Underwater (2020)
7/10
A well-made creature-feature; it may not be original, but it is entertaining
23 February 2020
The last film distributed by 20th Century Fox before they were rebranded as 20th Century Studios by Disney, Underwater was shot in early 2017 for $50 million and then sat on a shelf for over two years. Now that it's finally seeing the light of day, there's a real sense of Disney just wanting to be rid of Fox's clutter, and they either didn't know how to promote it or didn't want to promote it, as the marketing campaign has been next to invisible (and the bland title certainly doesn't help), with the film grossing a paltry $7 million in its opening weekend. From Disney's perspective, of course, releasing it in the January release window makes sense, as it's a period traditionally dominated by duds and cast-offs - films the studios don't care about for one reason or another. A recent high-profile example is Blackhat (2015), Michael Mann's underrated cyber-terrorism drama, which was released with little to no advertising, grossing only $20 million at the North American box office against a $70 million budget. However, much like Blackhat, Underwater is considerably better than most January releases. Sure, it's clichéd and predictable, and it shamelessly borrows from a litany of superior genre films, but it's also a very entertaining and enjoyable aquatic creature-feature.

At an unspecified point in the future, Tian Industries, the largest drilling company in the world, are attempting to drill into the ocean floor at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, almost seven miles down, with atmospheric pressure over 1,000 times that at sea-level, strong enough to crush a human body so completely that there aren't even any remains. As the film begins, Kepler Station, the crew quarters of Tian's massive drilling rig, is hit by a series of unexplained vibrations, causing a cascading pressure breach. Norah Price (Kristen Stewart) and Rodrigo Nagenda (Mamoudou Athie) are the only ones to escape, sealing off the area so as to slow, but not prevent the inevitable implosion of the whole rig. Heading first to the escape pod dock, they find no pods left, and in the control base, they're unable to contact the surface. Meanwhile, they encounter some other survivors - Cpt. Lucian (Vincent Cassel), Paul Abel (T.J. Miller), Liam Smith (John Gallagher Jr.), and Emily Havisham (Jessica Henwick). With their situation grim, Lucien says the only hope they have is to use pressurised suits to walk the one-mile distance to the Roebuck Drilling Station and use the escape pods located there. And so they descend to the dark ocean floor. However, as if their task wasn't daunting enough, they soon discover that they aren't alone.

Written by Brian Duffield and Adam Cozad, and directed by William Eubank, Underwater walks a very fine line between rip-off and homage. The most obvious touchstones, both narratively and aesthetically, are Alien (1979) and The Abyss (1989), but one can also see the influence of films such as Leviathan (1989), Event Horizon (1997), Sphere (1998), and Sunshine (2007). I even detected a slight nod to The Descent (2005). In short, the set-up is your classic "group of isolated people getting picked off one by one". When someone as talented as Danny Boyle turns his hand to this template, the result is a near-masterpiece. And although Eubank is most certainly no Boyle, Underwater is a lot better than its lack of advertising, clichéd premise, bland title, and generic trailer suggest.

Sure, it isn't really about much of anything. There's a vague ecological theme that's brought up a couple of times, with Emily talking about how humans have drilled "too deep" and are now suffering the consequences, but really, it never amounts to anything even half-way substantial. In all fairness though, who would be expecting thematic complexity anyway? You know what you're getting with a film like this, and the best you can hope for is that it looks good and is entertaining. And Underwater is both.

Kicking into high-gear immediately, the film wastes no time whatsoever in getting to the action. The opening scene is the Kepler implosion, and it's a good five minutes before things calm down. Alien takes its time getting anywhere, introducing us to the aesthetic of the Nostromo, then the characters and their relationships and milieu before it all kicks off. In essence, Underwater is the inverse of that, with all hell breaking loose before we know much of anything about anyone. Indeed, the only character we even see, let alone get to know, before the implosion is Norah. I certainly wouldn't want every film to open this way, but it has an undeniable kineticism and appealing volatility, which Eubank does a decent job of maintaining throughout the next 95 minutes.

Aesthetically, there's a lot to like here. Production design is absolutely paramount in films like this (think of how important design elements are in building tension and establishing tone in Alien or Event Horizon), and designer Naaman Marshall does a fine job, with the world feeling lived-in and authentic. Making especially good use of tunnels and low ceilings, there's a real sense of claustrophobia, which only lets up, ironically enough, when the characters are outside the safety of the rig and exposed to multiple dangers. This claustrophobia is aided immensely by Bojan Bazelli's cinematography. During scenes outside, Bazelli often shoots from within the characters' helmets, and even when the characters are inside, he often shoots in tight close-ups, simultaneously anchoring us to their perspectives and heightening the sense of enclosure and pressure (both literal and figurative). When outside, the film uses the limited visibility to its advantage in establishing a tone of ominous danger. Some will probably find these scenes too dark, but I'd argue that that is precisely the point; the characters can't see much of anything, and neither can we.

Elsewhere, obviously inspired by H.P. Lovecraft, particularly Cthulhu, Abner Marín's creature design is suitably creepy and grotesque. The aesthetic element that really stood out for me, however, was Wayne Lemmer's sound design. The implosion scenes are accompanied with some bone-rattling LFE, whilst the ominous ambient sounds of the Kepler are a constant reminder that the station is on its last legs. The scenes outside are equally as impressive, with some excellent use of directional sound as the action shifts location on screen - it's a film that I would imagine will sound incredible on a 7.1.2 Atmos system.

In terms of problems, there's a rather unjustified use of voiceover to bookend things, explaining the moral of the story; it's wholly unnecessary and has the effect of making the film feel like an episode of The Outer Limits (1995). There's also next to no characterisation. We learn bits and pieces about Norah and Lucien's backstories, but apart from that, the film is peopled by perfunctory cardboard cut-outs with no sense of interiority. Eubank also seems somewhat confused as to whether he's making a disaster movie or a monster movie, with certain scenes and elements suggesting one or the other. However, he never really finds a middle-ground, giving the film a slightly schizophrenic tone.

Although Underwater never manages to rise anywhere near the heights of films such as Alien and Sunshine, it deserved better treatment than it received from Fox and Disney. Given the January release, the clichéd setup, the two-year limbo, and the bland title, I wasn't expecting much from this, but I was pleasantly surprised. It won't change your life, but it's an entertaining and well-made creature-feature.
69 out of 119 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? Sign in to vote.
Permalink

Recently Viewed