The horror genre is filled with all manner of smaller categories, and while everyone has their favorites, for some of us our sub-genre of choice is aquatic horror. It’s still fairly broad and covers the likes of killer sharks, vengeful squid, ghost ships, and more, but a smaller subset focuses on creature features set beneath the sea, and that’s where Underwater calls home. Think Leviathan (1989), DeepStar Six (1989), The Abyss (1989), and probably some films that didn’t come out in 1989 too. It’s a terrifically tense and fun descent into a world that’s low on oxygen but high on thrills. Oh, and monsters. There are lots of those as well.
Norah (Kristen Stewart) is a tech working miles below the ocean’s surface as part of a multi-trillion dollar drilling endeavor, but the tedium of the job is about to come to disastrous end. One second she’s brushing her teeth, and the next the walls are exploding and hallway tunnels are filling with ocean water, debris, and screams. She makes her way through the ongoing destruction to join a small group of survivors, and with both time and oxygen dwindling they make a desperate bid for safety and a way home.
Unfortunately for them, a previously undiscovered life-form has other plans.
As mentioned, Underwater falls into a slim grouping of films pitting humans against some manner of unknown entity, and as with those other movies it owes something of a debt to Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979). It’s just the basics, though, of everyday people in a claustrophobic, sci-fi environment facing off against something alien that’s threatening their return to Earth (or Earth’s surface, as the case may be), but beyond that the film makes its own way delivering a fairly steady offering of thrills, tension, scares, and eye-catching visuals.
The film wastes no time getting into the action as the script by Brian Duffield (The Babysitter, 2017) and Adam Cozad (The Legend of Tarzan, 2016) opens on Norah brushing and barely gives her the chance to rinse before all hell breaks loose. The calm offers up a brief sense of the environment — we see the dark, unwelcoming ocean depth before heading inside to the sterile halls — but moments after Norah notices a telltale drip of water her world becomes a full-on disaster movie. Co-workers and friends we’ve barely glimpsed are swallowed up by the destruction, and director William Eubank (The Signal, 2014) gives the film an intensity as viewers feel a part of the sudden urgency.
The effects and production design work to create a believable world, and then Eubanks and cinematographer Bojan Bazelli (A Cure for Wellness, 2016) enthusiastically tear it all down around their cast. As an underwater disaster movie it all works well to keep a degree of tension in every scene knowing that walls can implode at any moment. Whether crawling through collapsed wreckage or walking across the ocean floor, the survivors always feel one step away from death, and it’s enough to leave viewers on edge awaiting the next jump scare — there are several, they’re all loud, and some are even pretty successful. Composer Marco Beltrami (Ford v Ferrari, 2019) adds to the film’s overall effectiveness too with a score that helps build tension and concern in equal measure.
The cast of six is fully on board with the genre shenanigans, and there’s not a weak link among them. Stewart is the film’s heavy lifter, and she’s fantastic as the cynical but highly capable lead trapped in underwear and a sports bra for a good chunk of the film. She’s no Ripley-lite — this isn’t that kind of role — and she instead develops a character built on sincerity, integrity, and a knack for opening doors. Seriously, she opens several in what feels like a chain of small victories for the group as bad luck and furious sea monkeys chip away at their ranks. The rest of the cast is equally solid in supporting roles including Vincent Cassell, an excellent Jessica Henwick (Game of Thrones, 2015-2017), John Gallagher Jr. (10 Cloverfield Lane, 2016), Mamoudou Athie (The Front Runner, 2018), and TJ Miller. The film does allow Miller a bit too much air time as comic relief, and his crack about Norah being flat-chested feels ill-advised given his alleged history, but it’s mostly harmless banter. (And speaking of ill-advised, the decision as to who to kill off first might leave you cringing.)
The film lacks pretension and excess ambition and just works. It’s a tight 95-minutes, and while I suspect some severe trims were made to keep the momentum and energy moving forward — one sequence in particular seems to setup a major story reveal before quickly cutting back to the action — their absence doesn’t hurt the final product. It’s a creature feature with cool, vicious, effective monsters. It’s a horror/thriller that maintains solid tension and suspense throughout. And it’s a human tale of survival with characters you come to care about just enough through their trials and tribulations. And it’s a rare genre effort from the extremely talented Stewart who shows she can anchor studio horror as well as she does indie drama.
Underwater doesn’t break the mold on the aquatic horror sub-genre, but it delivers exactly what it should — thrills, scares, and some memorable visual beats. It’s perhaps a bit too light on explanation for some leading to questions without answers, but in an emergency situation there’s no time for exposition dumps dammit! Happily, it’s also a fun, fast ride for horror fans marking a strong start for the year in horror ahead (he said, having already chosen to forget about The Grudge).