Going into Underwater, the deep sea horror from director William Eubank (The Signal), you kinda know what to expect. It’s going to take a little piece from Alien, a bit from Leviathan, maybe a dash of Event Horizon and The Abyss, rinse, repeat. Being familiar isn’t a detriment this time around, and for those who are fans of this particular style of creature feature there’s quite a lot to enjoy, starting with Kristen Stewart as the Ripley-esque lead heroine.
Stewart, with hair chopped shorter than it ever was during her role as a military grunt in Camp X-Ray, is by far the biggest draw for Underwater, a film that has had a belated path to the screen. Completed back in 2017 (!!!), this is technically Stewart’s first stab at a major studio comeback, preceding the recent Charlie’s Angels reboot. The Disney acquisition by Fox threw a wrench in the works, which is why it’s coming out after that movie’s box office failure and will make for an ugly 1-2 punch if this bombs, too. But you can tell this one has been sitting idle for a while just by the presence of Deadpool actor and Hollywood persona non grata, T.J. Miller. But that’s all background stuff that only matters if you feel very strongly about the film, one way or another.
There’s never a moment that doesn’t take place miles beneath the sea, with Eubank’s murky camera sometimes creating suspense, other times just making it impossible to tell what’s going on. Fortunately, Stewart carries the film on her shoulders as Norah Price, a mechanical engineer on an oil-drilling rig miles below the Mariana Trench. Establishing quickly that Norah is a peaceful soul, Eubank literally opens the floodgates in an incredible water-breaching sequence that sends her racing through the facility’s collapsing hull, pinballed from side-to-side by successive explosions, all in a race to find safety and rescue others. In the quick escalation of events, Norah is forced to make a decision that will haunt her for the rest of the movie, but also steels her for the monstrous ordeal to come.
This is all in about the first 5 or 10 minutes, as Eubank ditches the dull setup that usually precedes these movies, thrusting the characters (and us) right into the waterworks. Norah eventually gathers around her a hodge-podge of horror archetypes so common we can practically write their stories ourselves. The aforementioned Miller plays *shocker* the irritating jokester Paul; Iron Fist standout Jessica Henwick goes against-type as the timid Emily, who has a thing for the tough military guy Smith, played by John Gallagher Jr.; and Mamadou Athie is Rodrigo who…well, he seems like a nice dude.
While we don’t think of Stewart as the classically tough action star, she’s never less than believable as the glue that tries to hold the survivors together, and later as the one who could be their savior. Despite some canned, message-heavy narration to work through, Stewart lends credibility to Norah’s evolution into a monster fighter. The film’s other ace-in-the-hole is Vincent Cassel as the Captain, who, after seeing his entire rig basically obliterated, still wants to know on the scale of 1-to-10 how bad things are. Well, it’s a damn 10, dumbass. Cap’s dialogue is some of the movie’s funniest and corniest, which makes Cassel perfect for it. He’s such a talented actor that he jumps at scene-chewing stuff like this, which is always a blast to watch. If Cap tells a character they’re going to get home safely, start counting down the seconds until something awful happens.
That “something awful” finds the crew escaping from the facility in deep sea diving suits, and forced to walk the ocean floor to what they hope is a safer rig. But what they thought were underwater earthquakes turns out to be something far worse, and it isn’t long before they become a very slow-moving seafood buffet. The frights, especially early on, are pretty legit as Eubank and cinematographer Bojan Bazelli make effective use of tight crawlspaces to create a claustrophobic atmosphere, made more nerve-racking by the sea’s inky darkness, which obscures the monsters just enough to shock. The effect does eventually wear off and it just becomes a hard movie to look at and understand what’s going on.
Fortunately, at only 95-minutes it isn’t a problem that lingers for long. Underwater gets in and gets out, giving Stewart and Cassel a chance to battle sea monsters in their underwear and have fun while doing it. You could do far worse than diving in for this one.