Remember in the late 1980s when there was a sudden onslaught of science fiction and horror movies set in research facilities or drilling operations at the bottom of the ocean? The year 1989 gave us Sean S. Cunningham's DeepStar Six, George P. Cosmatos's Leviathan, and James Cameron's The Abyss, as well as Lords of the Deep, the sole directorial effort of low-budget Roger Corman producer Mary Ann Fisher. All four films played with the idea that the ocean depths are a great unknown in which lurk all kinds of horrors and secrets-or, as the trailer for Lords of the Deep ominously put it, "There are some places man was never meant to go" (Cameron's film was the only one with a sense of optimism, and it remains one of the great, unheralded masterpieces of modern science fiction).
Well, it's been a few decades, but now we have William Eubank's Underwater, which would have fit right in during the first years of George H.W. Bush's Presidency, albeit with some updated technology (water-resistant touch screens everywhere!). The obvious, no-frills title tells you both everything and nothing. Screenwriters Brian Duffield (Insurgent, Jane Got a Gun) and Adam Cozad (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, The Legend of Tarzan) supply a bare-bones plot set in a massive, deep-sea facility, this time a sprawling, corporate-owned oil-drilling operation nearly 7 miles down in the depths of the Mariana Trench, where the water pressure is roughly 2 tons per square inch. And, as we saw in those earlier films, human activity in the darkest depths tends to awaken things that should be otherwise left slumbering, in this case a Lovecraftian leviathan and a host of other tentacles, toothed, clawed underwater creatures.
Although it is not a particularly good movie, I will give Underwater credit for not wasting any time. Within the first five minutes the facility is losing its structural integrity and collapsing, flooding with water and buckling under tons of pressure. We are quickly stranded along with a sextet of survivors, including Norah (Kristen Stewart), who we know is the protagonist because we see her first and hear her oddly poetic voice-over narration in the opening moments; Rodrigo Nagenda (Mamoudou Athie), who happens to be near Norah when the facility starts caving in; Captain Lucien (Vincent Cassel), who is decent and determined; Paul Abel (T.J. Miller), the resident wiseacre; Emily Haversham (Jessica Henwick), a nervous research assistant; and her fiance Liam Smith (John Gallagher Jr.). Their survival requires that they navigate their way through the collapsing remnants of the underwater facility, don massive underwater suits, and cross a huge stretch of the ocean bottom in order to reach another section of the facility that might have escape pods. To say that most of them don't survive should surprise exactly no one.
There is little attention paid to character or motivation outside of paint-by-numbers basics, but the actors are all generally appealing and interesting enough to make their characters' plight at least mildly engaging. Most of the suspense and action is de rigeur, but there are a few well-placed jump scares, and Eubank should be credited with managing to withhold the undersea monstrosities for an admirably long period of time. The inherent darkness of the ocean bottom works to the film's benefit, as it allows Eubank and ace veteran cinematographer Bojan Bazelli (Kalifornia, The Ring, Pete's Dragon) to bathe much of the screen in pure darkness and use flashlights and spotlights to direct (or misdirect) our attention. There is nothing new here, but the film's real failing is its grim seriousness. If it had had more of a sense of humor and irony (beyond just T.J. Miller's carefully doled out wise cracks), it would have been a much more enjoyable B-movie excursion. If ever there were a film in need of Renny Harlin at the helm, Underwater is it.
Copyright 2020 James Kendrick
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All images copyright 20th Century Fox
Overall Rating: (2)
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