In a vacuum, "Underwater" is a generic sci-fi/horror flick and nothing more, but it manages a B+ grade in every category, making it quietly worth the price of admission.
Tracking down original sci-fi/horror films that can be generally defined as “good” is becoming an increasingly difficult endeavor. Studios are more finicky than ever and continue to hold tight to the reigns of creative liberties, especially when they must struggle to appease younger generations that have become jaded by superheroes and explosions, while older generations are cynical of the ever-growing superficiality of blockbuster scripts. It makes producers apprehensive to try something new since originality is a much bigger gamble than following box office trends.
Unfortunately, Underwater is another casualty of original sci-fi that fell victim to a number of circumstances to drop far below box office numbers it was worthy of. Despite mediocre-to-scathing reviews, Underwater was a rather entertaining romp that never gets in its own way. The script is not a flawless metaphor for the human condition paralleling the physical depths our survivors attempt to navigate, but it also isn’t the campy dregs of modern mainstream sci-fi action films. It is fully aware of its own limitations, comfortably performs within them, and makes a better-finished product for its efforts.
Sadly, it had to endure a crowded weekend that included an award-chasing war drama (1917) and a cast that was sprinkled with red flags (the generally panned Kristen Stewart in a lead role and the comedically talented but troubled TJ Miller), and a marketing campaign that diminished the sci-fi element of the film to focus on its generic horror component. And while I will defend the finished product, the film’s destiny for failure is reasonable. After all, 1917 is a far superior film and the cast of Underwater also gave me pause before stepping into the theater.
Yet, I was pleasantly surprised by the time the closing credits were rolling, especially considering the critical shellacking the film endured.
It is perhaps a disservice to those that came before it to call Underwater wholly original. It pieces together a majority of its plot, atmosphere, action, and creatures from other entries in the sci-fi/horror genre. The entirety of the film feels like it’s a puree of sci-fi and horror films like Alien, The Abyss, Sunshine, Deep Blue Sea, and The Descent with a tinge of mainstream Lovecraftian lore.
Courtesy of IMDb
The cinematography properly takes advantage of the dark depths of its setting to deliver decent scares and peripheral tension, but is otherwise standard. The plot follows the survivors of an underwater quake trying to reach escape pods before they run out of oxygen or are consumed by mysterious creatures. If that sounds derivative, it is. However, the simplicity of it makes it work, considering it’s a refreshing homage to a concept that hasn’t been done with any legitimacy in years.
Kristen Stewart shows more range than she has previously, managing to convey a subdued panic that alludes to the reality of the situation in which an engineer is attempting to remain objective while her blood boils with adrenaline and fear. TJ Miller plays his usual role of comedic relief to varying degrees of success, while the always-reliable Vincent Cassel leads a relatively strong supporting cast. They perform admirably together with a script that teeters between on-the-nose and color-by-numbers at times.
While the creatures were likely the primary draw for a majority of the film’s weak box office, the set pieces and costume design were the shining components for me. The aquatic suits the crew wears throughout the film have weight, texture, and detail to them that are more impressive than anything in recent memory. They aren’t overly sleek and shiny like most sci-fi suits today, but also somehow manage not to appear clunky and rigid like a 5-year old’s overly puffy coat on top of three layers of sweaters. The film manages to use the claustrophobia of the suits to great effect in the set pieces as well, quickly establishing an Alien-like restraint inside the dark, damp corridors and the murky, haunting depths of the ocean floor.
It is difficult to defend a sci-fi/horror film that boasts little originality, virtually no unique leaps in concept, and is admittedly nowhere near the best film on its own release date. Yet, I can’t help but feel some sadness that an otherwise enjoyable and respectable movie is going to go down as the first big flop of the new year. This film has the workings of being a major rebounder on digital and disc releases once word-of-mouth has properly dispersed, but that is unlikely to happen to any great effect before it limps out of theaters.
I embarrassingly concede that, while I enjoyed Underwater—perhaps more than I should have—I can’t with any conscience towards objective critique deny the complaints brought forward by others. It simply lacks the originality in concept and strength in production to be worthy of fervent defense. I’ll admit that these are the types of movies I will always support with my wallet.