‘Underwater’ (2020) Review

“We’re not even supposed to be down here.”

I like movies set underwater, as I think I’ve mentioned before. I prefer them with a monster or two, but I’ll take submarine movies too. The track record for these things isn’t that great, with The Abyss being the only really big-budget standout, movies like Leviathan and The Meg just offshore, and a slew of lesser offerings like The Rift and DeepStar Six patrolling the depths. (Sorry.)

Most horror movies set underwater are really clones of sci-fi space movies, trading one kind of killer environment for another. A disparate crew (and I seem to only use the word “disparate” when describing these kinds of films) that must face potential disaster and an interior threat while being unable to escape due to the exterior conditions. The thing I’ve always liked about the underwater monster movie is that the creature(s) are part of that environmental threat. Getting out of your ship in a spacesuit always seemed like a real way to escape in a film set in space. In an underwater creature feature it’s just frying pan > fire.

Given that these are often shoestring affairs with cheesy monsters and special effects, I give them more leeway, especially if they have a sense of humor or awareness about what kind of movie they are (hello Deepstar Six). A good monster goes a long way, too. The plot doesn’t need to be complicated or deep (sorry again), I just want some thrills and chills and to care (at least a little) about the characters before they’re eaten.

The Medium
I watched Underwater on HBOMax, a result of a gift card for a long-ago birthday (thanks Kristy!). Quality was good enough that I wished I’d been able to see it on the big screen. It’s currently only available for subs on the HBO family of services (which includes DirectTV), but can be purchased (though not rented) on most of the regular streaming services.

There is a Blu-ray release with a number of extra features, including an alternate ending, extended scenes and a commentary track.

The Movie
Underwater starts off with a bang, introducing us to obviously damaged Norah (Kristen Stewart) only moments before disaster strikes. There are some introductory elements during the credits, essentially explaining the setup of underwater drill site Kepler, Marianas Trench, six miles down, yadda yadda yadda, but goes by fast (still better than a voice-over). Then water explodes into the set and Norah is running for her life, picking up other survivors on the way as they all try to stay alive long enough to get to an abandoned facility and call for rescue.

Underwater feels familiar, it’s all Alien by way of The Abyss, with disaster and monsters threatening in equal measure. The small and disparate (there it is again) crew is also a page taken from those films, with comic relief Paul (TJ Miller), strong and loyal leader Lucien (Vincent Cassel), lovers Liam and Emily (John Gallagher Jr and Jessican Henwick) and sefless Rodrigo (Mamoudou Athie). Don’t get attached to any of them. Don’t worry, it won’t be hard – while the actors are decent, they’re given so little opportunity to interact in non-action moments that they’re all ciphers, defined by clipped dialogue and backgrounds so tragic that make you wonder why any company would employ such damaged people in such a stressful situation.

As the Kepler continues its slow implosion the survivors realize that they’ll have to travel across the open abyssal plain of the Marianas Trench in order to get to an abandoned pilot drill platform. One of them will be sacrificed to show us that pressure at six miles down is serious, they’ll bring a mysterious creature into their safe space because that ALWAYS goes well, and they’ll be forced to swim under an obstruction with SOMETHING in the water with them because every disaster movie since The Poseidon Adventure has that scene. It’s TRADITION.

Underwater looks great, with excellent set and costume design (love those suits) as well as sharp cinematography by Bojan Bozelli. I would have appreciated a little more clarity in some of the underwater scenes (everything is lit up like a Christmas tree, so why is it so hard to SEE anything), but that could be down to editing. The monsters are appropriately creepy and slimy looking, if a little too humanoid for me, especially given what the “young” look like. The pacing is fast enough to qualify as frenetic, and the sound design amplifies the suspense.

In general, Underwater gives me the bones I’m looking for in a deep sea creature feature, with good monsters and a great setting as well as constant pressure and action, but it never quite connects. Part of that is down to the lean running time, which pares character interaction down in favor of jumps, action and monsters. I do appreciate the way things never seem to slow down, but I feel like the film needs ten more minutes – hell, FIVE more minutes – of character development and interaction. The usual short-cuts don’t even have enough time here. For example, there’s a character carrying a bunny that is supposed to be an emotional touchstone, but by the time it showed up at the end I’d forgotten whose bunny it was. And a couple of Moon Pie references don’t pay off at all. The actors are all good, and Kirsten Stewart works as an action movie star, but they don’t have much to work with.

The second part of why I’m not invested is that the movie is not much fun. It’s a monster movie, but it approaches everything with a level of sincerity and seriousness that doesn’t seem advisable given that it also includes TJ Miller and Moon Pie references. If you were more connected to the characters it might work, but as they’re not given enough time and material to develop, the seriousness just weighs down the things you do get, which are disasters and monsters. There are details available in the background and in small moments of dialogue – there’s a hint, for instance, that this isn’t the first time the drilling company has encountered problems at the dig site – but they’re few and forgotten quickly in the rush of action.

The ending creature is a good one, but it almost feels tacked on – understandable, given that director William Eubank (The Signal) didn’t even decide on its Lovecraftian nature until AFTER wrapping principal photography. As with most monster movies there are attacks, and setbacks, and survivors and sacrifices. It all feels a bit familiar, but that’s not a bad thing. I just wish it had embraced the monster movie part of its DNA.

The Bottom Line
Underwater really tries hard to be a top-tier action/sci-fi/horror film at the same level as The Abyss or Alien, but it doesn’t have the heart those films do, making it difficult to care as thinly drawn characters get crushed, squished, and torn apart. I did enjoy myself, and there are moments where all the familiar pieces fall into place and you cheer or jump or cringe, but they’re not consistent and the characters are just never given enough room to breathe. (Sorry again.)

Author: Bob Cram

Would like to be mysterious but is instead, at best, slightly ambiguous.