Courtesy of Fox
With a title like “Underwater” and a premise about aquatic monsters roaming deep beneath the ocean, I doubt anyone expected the PG13 thriller to blow them away. In fact, I was patiently waiting for an obscure “Cloverfield” connection to help make coherent sense of how obtuse the plotting is. But I assume folks purchasing a ticket to “Undewater” know what they’re in for. Fortunately, I did too.
“Underwater” is a decently handled creature feature of the week that comes equipped with more than enough jump scares to justify its quick 90-minute run time (so while there’s not enough time to explain what the hell is going on, at least you’re never board). Borrowing elements from “The Abyss” and “Alien” (so much so James Cameron and Ridley Scott practically deserve story credit), “Underwater” wastes no time thrusting us into the action. In the first five minutes, we meet an isolated Norah - (Kristen Stewart who doesn’t get enough credit for her terrific screen presence) - a mechanical engineer currently working on a rig thousands of miles below land when, with no warning, an earthquake strikes leaving everything in a collapsed state, and she’s forced to make some gutsy decisions, including leaving her shipmates behind.
She meets up with other survivors on the rig: there’s the forced comic relief TJ Miller who likes to blast punk covers of the “Spongebob Squarepants” theme song and carry around a stuffed hamster for good luck; Vincent Cassel playing against his usual villain type as the leader of the squad trying to get back home to his daughter; the always distinguishable John Gallagher Jr as a commands operator; newcomer Jessica Henswick as a biologist and finally Mamoudou Athie who gets real mileage from a one dimensional character with hardly anything to do. Together, in their exoskeleton suits borrowed from “Gears of War” – the brigade must crawl their way through the trenches and tight corridors to reach a nearby facility where escape pods are located.
If only it were that easy.
Suddenly, eerie creaks are heard in the corridors, strange algae are covering the walls, and the open darken abyss of being “20,000 leagues under the sea” proves a thrilling and claustrophobic backdrop for director William Eurbank as he guides the crew into the feeding ground for an identified species who has recently come out of hibernation. And the carnage and strategic pacing are effective, despite some glaring and obvious plot holes that exist, including characters being whirled into smithereens only to somehow live without a scratch or the evolution of the monsters themselves. It’s tacky, and the characters are all stock and flimsy – aside from Stewart who really tries to anchor this absurd film with some tangible sincerity – but in tasteless B-movie standards, “Underwater” has enough craftsmanship (kudos to set designer Naaman Marshall) and a decent ensemble to help the film rise above the surface. Do we come to see these genres of movies for the story? Or is to see unsuspecting nitwits slowly get massacred?
Eurbank – probably best known for his film “The Signal” – can’t help throwing on a cheesy tag at the end of the film and some questionable narration choices as opposed to committing to what I assume test audiences didn’t like (mainstream audiences hate it when you trick them!) and instead “Underwater” ends on a sour note. Finally, I could never peg Norah’s motivations, but one can assume you don’t just decide to work in this profession if you aren’t running from something and Stewart finds layers in Norah’s head-space and in turn makes her a character that’s worth rooting for. Ripley would be proud.