You like Alien, right? Well, you’ll like it more when it’s a bit soggy.
That’s the basic idea at the heart of Underwater, which is a poorly conceived idea from the very beginning. It’s a movie without a single original thought in its head and only a few moments of third act spectacle rescue it from being one of the worst films of the year.
Kristen Stewart is the Ripley clone at the heart of the movie, who finds herself forced to make a horrible decision when an apparent earthquake imperils every worker aboard a drilling station at the bottom of the Mariana Trench. With a ragtag bunch of survivors, she makes it to the control room where mysterious European captain Lucien (Vincent Cassel) has also made it through the disaster. He decides that their only hope of survival is to don hefty suits and trek a mile across the ocean floor to a neighbouring drilling station. It soon transpires that they are not alone, and that it might never have been an earthquake in the first place.
The problem with Underwater is that it constantly reminds the audience of better movies. Namely, Alien. There’s so little to separate it from the rest of its genre that it descends into a trudge through the murky action, delivered through cinematography so sludgy it’s impossible to tell who’s who or where they are. When one character says that “waiting in line” is the scariest part of a rollercoaster – he must be fun at parties – he might as well be delivering a mission statement for the film, which spends a lot of time walking around and not a lot of time shooting for thrills.
To its credit, the movie plunges its audience directly into the heart of the disaster, pausing only for a ponderous, self-serious voice-over, delivered over shots of Stewart brushing her teeth and some expository newspaper clippings. But once the dust settles, director William Eubank settles into a rather dull rhythm of characters looking at each other with frightened faces while they wander about in the dark. When you can’t see what’s happening, it’s tough to feel any suspense.
Matters aren’t helped by the complete absence of any sort of back-story at the front end of the movie. The decision to thrust us straight into the carnage is a solid one, but it’s never backed up with any sort of depth for the various characters, other than awkwardly shoe-horned bursts of exposition which are dropped into the later stages of the story. Instead, we just get archetypes, from Jessica Henwick as “the scared one” to T.J. Miller as “the crude frat-boy one” and Vincent Cassel as “the sexy French one”. So once the body parts start flying, the audience has never been trained to care.
Underwater does, however, have Kristen Stewart going in its favour. She’s committed and interesting, despite the disappointment of the material, but even she seems unwilling to ever pull herself out of second gear and turn up her acting chops. There’s also a pleasing diversion for genre nerds in the third act, which pays homage to a different seminal work of horror fiction in surprising and intriguing fashion.
Much like the rest of the movie, it comes to nothing. But at least I could see what was happening.
Dir: William Eubank
Scr: Brian Duffield, Adam Cozad
Cast: Kristen Stewart, Vincent Cassel, Jessica Henwick, T.J. Miller, John Gallagher Jr., Mamoudou Athie
Prd: Peter Chernin, Tonia Davis, Jenno Topping
DOP: Bojan Bazelli
Music: Marco Beltrami, Brandon Roberts
Run time: 95 mins
Underwater is in UK cinemas now.