I can report that Underwater is definitely an accurate title for this movie, as it does in fact occur completely underwater.
The setup is that a giant undersea drill has been built to get oil out of the bottom of the Mariana Trench. Tense opening music and dim lighting inform us along with movie logic that this is a BAD idea. Drilling for oil at the deepest part of the ocean is just an obvious mistake. That’s where Godzilla lives, morons. There are no romcoms set at six miles under the surface of the ocean, although there obviously should be.
Things go wrong in the first couple of minutes, the usual clichés deploy on schedule with each obligatory jump scare, and one by one the essentially anonymous characters are killed off roughly in inverse order of their pay scale. It would have been more cost-effective and entertaining to just watch Alien through a fishtank.
To be fair, the first 20 minutes or so are actually pretty decent. Tightly written, moodily shot, jumping straight into explosions and characters running for their lives as their world collapses around them. It doesn’t let up, moving immediately into a sequence of trying to clamber through the wreckage in order to escape. It’s insanely claustrophobic, wriggling through narrow passages through tons of collapsed structure, the screeching and groans of imminent collapse all around, every drip of water the harbinger of an explosive breach. It’s shot so well, you can feel the weight above the characters, the way they’re barely holding in panic and forcing themselves forward.
For the brief part of the movie when it’s just Kristen Stewart and Mamoudou Athie, it’s quite well done. And in fairness, I should note that Athie is in fact a childhood friend of our own Genevieve Burgess. But although he attended her brother’s wedding last year, he is too busy
having gone Hollywood shooting his next movie to attend hers next week.
Then the movie gets on with its mediocrity by introducing TJ Miller and killing the black guy and we’re off to sixty minutes of cut and paste jump scare tedium.
Look, the movie is technically well made and accomplishes what it sets out to do. The problem is that what it sets out to do is so derivative they could have just called it “Introduction to Calculus.” Ba dum. See what I did there? That’s more originality than the entire 90-minute run time of Underwater. Also more humor.
The movie paints a lot of well-done visuals but fails to populate itself with developed characters, interesting story moments, or anything approaching cleverness. The disintegrating underwater bases are dingy, creaky, and more industrial than high tech, with more grease and steel than flat screens and lasers. The deep-sea diving suits the characters inhabit for most of the run time have weight to them, giant iron monstrosities of bolts and clunky movement. The visuals create a lived-in and tangible undersea world.
Which is then ruptured by the ensuing parade of movie logic eyerolls. Like the fact that upon donning the diving suits all the characters strip down to their sleek undies because we are told that the suits are too tight for clothes to fit into. I dunno, something tells me that Kristen Stewart’s sweatpants aren’t taking up as much space as TJ Miller’s gut, but I’m not a Deep Sea Doctor, so what do I know.
Or like the fact that at no point does anyone while running around barefoot in all this water observe that the water six miles below the surface is fucking cold. If you’re going to rip off The Abyss, at least remember the basic things it taught us.
Or how the characters grab nail guns that magically work underwater to defend themselves. I’m sure they’re supposed to be bolt guns or something, but do some quick googling, they are exactly the nail guns you can get at Home Depot. Must have been a lot of wood down at 20,000 leagues that needed put together. Making picnic tables out of that famous Mariana Redwood.
Or let’s talk Bechdel. Look, it’s not some perfect measure of the feminist credentials of a movie by any stretch, but when movies can so cataclysmically fail it despite every opportunity not to, it says something about the goddamned writing. For twenty minutes of the movie Kristen Stewart and the biologist (Jessica Henwick) are the only conscious characters. All of their conversation still revolves around their boyfriends. Their crew is being eaten by tentacle monsters, they’ve survived nuclear explosions, explosive decompression, and TJ Miller’s sexual harassment humor, and what do they chat about as they struggle to the finish line? Not “well, intern, since you’re a biologist what do you think about the sea monsters eating us?” Nope. Their goddamned boyfriends.
Next time I hope Cthulhu wins.
Header Image Source: 20th Century Fox