2020, PG-13, 95 min. Directed by William Eubank. Starring Kristen Stewart, T.J. Miller, Jessica Henwick, Vincent Cassel, John Gallagher Jr., Mamoudou Athie.
REVIEWED By Matthew Monagle, Fri., Jan. 17, 2020
It takes a lot for a movie to cause me spatial anxiety. While many outlets seem to confuse continuity errors with film criticism, most of today’s wide releases offer a perfectly acceptable mixture of pacing and scale. Their set-pieces may not always be elegant, but the filmmakers who create them provide just enough clarity to keep audiences present in these big-budget moments. So believe me when I say that William Eubank’s Underwater is as incomprehensible an action movie as I’ve ever seen in theatres.
Underwater opens with a series of newspaper headlines meant to contextualize humanity’s future. In a few short minutes, we learn that corporations have laid claim to the resource-heavy Mariana Trench. We then join Norah (Stewart), one of the station’s many mechanical engineers, as the entire thing collapses around her. Joined by research assistant Emily (Henwick) and a ragtag group of survivors, Norah begins a deadly trek across the ocean floor to the safety of the nearby drilling station. Soon, though, the group finds themselves hunted by a seemingly ancient horror.
The first few minutes of Underwater are more than just promising. They’re almost perfect. Norah is introduced in the station’s restroom, gently removing a spider from a bathroom sink. Then the station begins to explode. Eubank wisely focuses on the spectacle and lets his actors build their performances one panicked expression at a time. Little bits of world-building abound. We listen to the station’s artificial intelligence as it cheerfully extols the virtues of corporate employment and goggle alongside the characters at employee murals that portray deep-sea divers descending into the inner layers of hell. Production designer Naaman Marshall proves to be the film’s smartest hire; Underwater often has just as much attention to detail as the science-fiction classics it emulates.
Soon, however, things go off the rails. Eubank seems unsure of how to balance the ambitious onscreen violence – one character dies via implosion, an early contender for movie death of the year – against the unscripted humor of its stars. Miller is particularly guilty of this. He may be aiming for the blue-collar gallows humor that makes the Alien franchise sing, but under his steady barrage of jokes and Alice in Wonderland references, Underwater has long periods where it feels like an Apatow castoff. The film works best when it forgoes humor altogether.
But what truly dooms Underwater is its incomprehensible underwater sequences. Whenever Norah and company set foot outside the station, the action becomes a Vaseline blur of dimness and debris. Where the characters go, what is pursuing them, even where they are in relation to the Mariana Trench, becomes obscured in service of Eubank’s faux-Cloverfield visuals. There’s a difference between claustrophobia and intimacy in horror films. For as much as Underwater sometimes feels like a riff on popular science-fiction games of the last decade, it lacks the well-designed rail system that propels users through those experiences. If anything, Underwater mirrors the experience of clipping through the level design in a first-generation shooter.
On paper, there are so many things about Underwater that seem to work in the movie’s favor. From Stewart’s empathetic performance as a traumatized survivor to the future-rot aesthetic of the production design, there are moments where Underwater seems poised to become the next great aquatic horror film. But filmmakers that choose momentum as their narrative device cannot afford to mess up the action, and Eubank has created a truly ugly horror film. What an absolute shame.