N.B. Contains potential spoilers.
Ahh, the new year. A time to make resolutions. A time to hit reset. A time to make a fresh start. A time to delay a film review or two, but I had a bad cold for the entire first month of the year, so yes this is late for the US release (but just in time for UK theatrical release). It’s a time when you can catch up on the films from the prior year which have generated Oscar buzz, and, sadly, it’s also a time when movie duds get foisted upon an unsuspecting public. They call January the Studio Dumping Grounds for a reason. That’s why a movie like Underwater never had a chance. Shot over three years ago for Twentieth Century Fox, the new Disney regime let it sit on a shelf until that proper slot reserved for their bastard step-children reared its ugly head. Clearly marketed to look like a cheap knockoff of Alien, except under the ocean, the film, strangely enough, rises above, if only slightly, its designated release date.
Director William Eubank, working from a script by Brian Duffield and Adam Cozad, displays a lot of talent with his ability to keep things moving while achieving an impressively claustrophobic and unnerving tone. Unlike Ridley Scott’s classic, unfortunately, the film spends almost no time setting up its characters. Scott’s deliciously slow first 40 minutes before that first facehugger attack adds so much to the terror, because we’ve become invested in the people in the crosshairs.
No such luck here, although one could commend the filmmakers for jumping into their story at lightning speed and sustaining its propulsive energy from beginning to end. We first meet Norah (Kristen Stewart) as she brushes her teeth while wearing sweats and a sports bra. After a couple of lines of ominous voiceover, in which she informs us that sometimes you cannot tell what’s real and what’s not, we get our inciting incident. No need to wait for it, because immediately, something, perhaps an earthquake, rattles her station near the bottom of the Mariana Trench. As the station begins to flood, Norah barely makes it to safety, along with a small handful of Monster Food, also known as her crew mates. They entail a refreshing mix of solid actors (Vincent Cassel, Mamoudou Athie, John Gallagher Jr., Jessica Henwick) and T.J. Miller, who does his best Bill Paxton in Aliens imitation. It should spoil nothing that one by one, we experience many deaths until Final Girl Ripley…er…Norah…ends up racing around an escape pod in her underwear.
The thin but mercifully short storyline asks our cast of characters to hike on foot from their ruined station through a murky, almost completely dark pathway to the aforementioned pod. Fortunately, Eubank knows how to mine suspense out of each moment, resulting in a series of gorgeously directed and satisfying set pieces. Things may get confusing when one can barely make out the imagery, but it feels deliberate. Eubanks wants to disorient us, so mission accomplished. The addition of undersea monsters, or perhaps aliens, effectively creeped me out, especially when one of them tries to devour one poor human, scuba helmet and all.
Despite most cast members barely registering, including an incredibly tired and offensive trope involving the first victim, Stewart gives a commanding, dynamic performance. If you’re gonna rip off Alien, right down to the strobing lights, the incessantly squawking station computer voice, and Stewart’s Ripley-esque way of looking to her side in terror (see poster art), then at least we have a star who knows how to bring nuance and vulnerability to every moment she’s onscreen. Frankly, I could watch Stewart trying to override a computer all day long. She commits fully to the heavy breathing and the almost violent determination in a way we haven’t seen since Weaver yelled at “Mother” in a futile effort to stop the Nostromo from self-destructing.
By the end, I thought to myself, “I didn’t hate this. It did leave a sour taste in my mouth with its somewhat hidden message that single people are doomed, but it’s all in service of an ending which may take people by surprise. Although uneven, it’s well made and suspenseful. Not the worst January Dumping Ground movie I’ve seen by a long shot.” For that, we can all be grateful that Underwater kicked off 2020 in a “not terrible” fashion. I’d like a lot more “not terrible” in what could be a very trying year.
GAY SCALE: For each review, I’ll rate the film on my 50 SHADES OF GAY SCALE to let you know how far it tips in our favor. Underwater gets a 30 out of 50. There’s no denying that queer icon Kristen Stewart oozes a sort of sapphic, sporty girl energy, and this film showcases it perfectly. Although the film lacks specific gay content, it’s obvious that young queer kids will look up to Stewart after seeing her throw herself into this role with such alluring physicality.
By Glenn Gaylord, Senior Film Critic
Underwater is currently barely treading water in theaters internationally.