(We’ve put all the deep dark secrets below a spoiler line at the bottom of the review.)
In Underwater, six people at the bottom of the Mariana Trench—Norah (Kristen Stewart), Rodrigo (Mamoudou Athie), Emily (Jessica Henwick), Paul (T.J. Miller), Smith (John Gallagher Jr.), and Captain Lucien (Vincent Cassel)—try to reach safety after something destroys their deep sea habitat.
Arley: Okay. Overall I thought it was a fun, effective movie. But they killed the Black guy. They killed him first. I mean, what is this? The ’90s? It’s a bad way to start the year.
Josh: Yeah, that’s a bummer. I’m still glad this kind of movie was even made, though: an underwater thriller with good sci-fi, and it wasn’t a remake or a pre-existing franchise.
The film’s opening credit sequence is a quick-cut series of documents, schematics, and news headlines providing efficient exposition to set the scene (and good thing, too, because the action starts quickly and just keeps going from there with little room for further explanation). One document highlights the phrase “as dangerous as deep space,” which serves as an accurate summation of Underwater—this is essentially a space station movie. In addition to the normal obstacles humans would face seven miles beneath the ocean (such as equipment and power failures, rapture of the deep, limited air, zero visibility, and no quick escape), here there are also monsters.
Arley: I enjoyed those opening schematic scenes, and the hard cut jump from opening titles gave it a sense of dimensionality.
Josh: Minor spoilers here, I suppose. I actually liked Rodrigo’s death scene. It was the most gruesome kill in the movie (flesh cloud!), and since it’s their first time outside the station, it sets up just how dangerous their environment is. But, they could have done it to literally anyone else in the group.
Arley: They had plenty of white people in that group to choose from. The writers need a slap for killing the Black guy right away.
Josh: That was a bad decision, but it might be one of the few egregious writing mistakes in this movie, surprisingly.
Underwater is billed as “science fiction horror” and stands alongside a limited number of films in the subgenre of underwater science fiction, “recent” examples of which include Sphere (1998), Deep Blue Sea (1999), and about five minutes of The Meg (2018). Not much else along those lines has made any kind of impact in theaters for the last past 30 years.
Josh: I don’t know what was going on 1989, but there were six underwater science fiction movies released within a year: DeepStar Six, Leviathan, The Evil Below, Lords of the Deep, The Abyss were all that year, and then The Rift came out early 1990.
Arley: Hollywood loves releasing themes in pairs. Deep Impact and Armageddon, The Prestige and The Illusionist, and so on.
Josh: And then essentially nothing, for decades! Maybe they got it all out of their system then. Of all of those, I’ve only seen The Abyss, and I’ve only ever heard of DeepStar Six because Amazon keeps suggesting it to me. From its description, it sounds like a pretty similar movie to Underwater, complete with nuclear explosions, with a bit of Alien to it. I mean, look at that tagline. No idea what those other ones are. Maybe it’s time for a revival of the subgenre.
Arley: This movie is a pastiche. Not a bad pastiche. I watched it, I was thoroughly entertained by it, I didn’t feel like I wasted my money. But, for example, some of the monster effects are very reminiscent of other movies – Alien comes to mind.
Josh: Kristen Stewart plays kind of a Ripley-ish role.
Arley: They were either completely ripping off Ripley or paying homage, it was so obvious, down to the fact that she’s running around in her underwear and not being sexualized. Which, is good, but —
Josh: Sure, that may have been what they were going for, but the character doesn’t quite succeed in the same way. There isn’t the charisma. I wasn’t rooting for Norah at all.
Arley: Well, you can’t out-Sigourney Sigourney. I do appreciate that Stewart is playing a role that 15, 20 years ago would obviously be played by a dude. She’s the protagonist. She’s making things happen, jury-rigging things.
Josh: She makes the tough decisions, has to make the sacrifices more than once. Working through the options and solutions with the captain.
Arley: Which ties back to the way Ripley’s character is utilized in the Alien films.
There are similarities to any number of previous sci-fi, horror, and sci-fi horror films, and Underwater wears its influences out in the open, from James Cameron, to the lived-in “used future” feel, and costumes reminiscent of the spacesuits in The Wandering Earth. One shot of the survivors trudging across the ocean floor, illuminated only by their suits’ lights while surrounded by darkness and monsters, could have been taken directly from Pitch Black. The creature-feature thriller story, likewise, has been seen in too many other media to count.
Josh: It’s fairly inevitable for me to compare Underwater to the Bioshock games. The old diving suit that Norah finds is kind of steampunk, and reminded me of the Big Daddy characters from Bioshock 1 and 2.
Arley: The premise is classic science-versus-nature, like pretty much any Michael Crichton book.
Josh: Sure. It’s Sphere, or what Sphere should have been, given how good of a book it is.
Arley: There’s a real problem when the only two people of color were pretty much useless. Emily’s role, as the “Lone Asian Woman,” is to give her white love interest, Smith, something to do, so he can look cool and guide her through the danger. She’s the foil upon which he can look courageous.
Josh: Until she’s dragging his ass across the ocean floor and smashing him in the face with a fire extinguisher.
Arley: That part was great, because it’s so tense, and the woman is the action hero there.
Josh: I think she had a little bit of an arc going on in that sense, from useless to heroine. You can tell she really loves that guy, though, ’cause she consistently calls him by his last name.
Arley: My Asian friend who went to see the movie with me was mad that they gave the Asian character a British accent. She can’t just be an Asian woman, she has to be “made more interesting with an accent.” Not sure if I have the context to exactly understand, but probably a valid point.
Josh: I don’t know either, but that is Jessica Henwick’s actual accent.
Arley: Everything in casting is very deliberate. Rodrigo, the Black guy’s role, from the beginning, is to be in direct contrast to Kristen Stewart’s competence. He starts to go down a tunnel and she’s like, “That doesn’t go through.” He is the one who convinces her to close the airlock and make the sacrifices. And then he dies. They killed the one actor who seemed like he could carry a character of any depth.
One of the movie’s biggest flaws is its lack of charismatic actors and compelling characters, reducing the core group of six to little more than monster fodder. While all of the characters display basic competence and more common sense than you’d expect in a typical horror film, and efforts are made to inject some back story in the midst of all the screaming and blood, by the end of the film it is difficult to care about which of them live or die. This movie needed just a little bit of a punch-up to distinguish itself from previous genre stories, and that could have been served by having even just one actor with charisma or stage presence.
Josh: T.J. Miller has one or two good physical comedy moments, but they’re so brief, and this isn’t a funny movie. As soon as you see his name on the poster or his face in the trailer you know exactly what kind of character he’ll be, and he fulfills that precisely the way he’s supposed to.
Arley: He had a couple of funny moments, especially early on, but then it became overused. I don’t normally like Kristen Stewart’s acting but I liked her in this one. She had a variety of expressions, she looked the way she was supposed to in order to represent this kind of character. Right when the disaster starts, they show her get injured and those injuries stay with her and it shows the audience that there are stakes.
Josh: I don’t think “a variety of expressions” qualifies as good acting, but the film did move along quickly enough that I didn’t have time to get irritated by anybody.
Arley: I had a moment of boredom in the middle but overall I agree. Someone pointed out to me that her saving the spider in the beginning is their version of the “save the cat” trope, a shortcut to show that she’s the sympathetic character. That was an interesting point, because at first I thought the spider was a metaphor for her philosophy on life.
Josh: I didn’t care who lived and died, but I was interested in at least one person making it out, as a payoff after all that horror they had to go through. So the reasons I cared had to do with plot, rather than character.
Underwater is only 95 minutes long and wastes none of that time. The action is well paced, and the mystery of the plot is better done than the mystery of character revelation. This is most strikingly contrasted in a single scene in which Norah finds Captain Lucien’s secrets in his locker, which she then muses about out loud — for the audience’s benefit only, since she is the only person in that entire station at the time. Meanwhile, the camera pans down the rest of the locker’s contents, giving a hint at what’s to come. Look away from the screen for just a second, and you’d miss that exposition.
The film sacrifices a slower beginning with character build-up and true backstory for an immediate danger, and escalating complications from there. When there are monsters, you don’t have time to talk about your feelings, giving some of the character exchanges a bit of a false note. The action gets visually confusing here and there because of the limited underwater visibility, making it difficult to tell who is being dragged away, by what, and at that point the tension lessens. Similarly, the idea of where everything is in relation to each other, the layout of the stations, and the size of the facilities is muddled at the beginning, but this is explained better with further schematics and exterior shots as the movie goes on.
Josh: The visuals of the underwater stations looked great.
Arley: I liked the color palette of this film. The atmosphere and effects are good, which in this kind of movie are arguably two of the most important things. I especially liked their use of sound and silence. There were different types of silence—the kind when they’re outside, the silence inside their helmets, or when Norah is alone in a station. It gives the audience the chance to feel the claustrophobia, loneliness, and fear of being trapped at the bottom of the ocean.
The action entertains throughout, including several jump-scares. These are fortunately offset by other moments of genuine tension as the group approaches one obstacle after another. The viewer knows full well that someone will likely die at each of these chokepoints. The question becomes, which of them, and how? (And, how violent will it be?) Some are far more predictable than others, and evocative of standard action adventure fare.
Arley: There were some good fake-outs. Overall, this is a solid science fiction movie, despite some predictability. They even gave a nod to scientific plausibility, with a one-line explanation about drilling into a “thermobaric bubble,” kind of like what we saw in The Meg.
Josh: Not groundbreaking, but definitely entertaining.
Arley: Only a few minor moments broke disbelief for me. There’s a scene early on where Norah is running away from the water, goes around a corner, and suddenly there’s no water. We can explain it, but the movie doesn’t provide that explanation. It’s also probably not economically feasible to drill the deepest point on the planet.
Josh: Yeah, I think it’s cheaper, and easier, to mine the asteroids than the Mariana trench.
Arley: There are some other, worse, hard-SF problems, but those would get in the way of the story and this movie jumps right in without time to build up too much explanation. But like I said, I really enjoyed the movie. It was solid storytelling and even though I’m a cold-hearted robot, the people I saw it with had a great time with the scares.
Josh: I wouldn’t call it entirely original, but hopefully it’ll lead the way for more inventive movies in the same genre.
A Thermocline of Spoilers: Below This Point, You’ve Gone Too Far in the Review.
Josh: Underwater is explicitly a Lovecraftian movie. The intern/scientist character, Emily, says, “We went too far, we’re not supposed to be here,” which mirrors Lovecraft’s line in “The Call of Cthulhu”: “We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.”
In Lucien’s locker, taped up alongside the maps and pentagrams, is a clear shot of H.P. Lovecraft’s sketch of Cthulhu.
Arley: The writers could have cut Norah’s intro dialogue about losing sense of time. The whole introductory introspection was just a bit obvious to me.
Josh: I actually liked those lines because it ties into the Lovecraft theme and insanity, losing sense of time, not knowing whether you’re awake or dreaming. It doesn’t quite pay off, but there is a small sense of ambiguity in the ending that makes things interesting.
Arley: I liked a lot of the monster moments. The little baby monster they kill looks just like the chestburster from Alien.
Josh: That’s a good fake-out. You think it’s a typical scene where someone does something stupid and dies, but then they cut to throwing the dead monster on the table.
Arley: I didn’t believe that they couldn’t all escape in the pods. There was plenty of room.
Josh: Right? Just sit on her lap. These are pretty minor criticisms, overall, which get glossed over by the pace and entertainment value of the rest of it. One thing that distracted me was the way their suits exploded if they were breached. I assume that was their oxygen tanks blowing up—
Arley: I think they had a quick line about a power core, but I can’t totally remember.
Josh: —and though I’m not sure it would work quite like that, I thought the filmmakers were setting them up to be used to kill a monster, or to serve as a ticking time bomb. Turned out to be a Chekhov’s explosion that didn’t happen. Too bad. Up until the locker scene, I was thinking that the creatures were kind of goofy looking and would have been a disappointing overall threat.
Arley: That was a classic example of the monster being scarier when you can’t see the whole thing.
Josh: And then I saw that image and was like, “No. Are we really getting actual Cthulhu in this movie?” And then it was.
Arley: The main monster looked so good, which is really important, because a few thousand dollars less and it would look cheesy.
Josh: There was an important use of lighting there. The slow reveal with the flare gun gives a great sense of scale. Seeing Cthulhu was a moment of actual delight. I think I laughed.
Arley: So did I! Also, there’s a thing called a Suriname Toad whose young burrow into their skin like these monsters do. It’s gross.
Josh: The internet has just informed me that Leviathan is basically The Thing, but underwater. Maybe we should watch that next.
Directed by: William Eubank
Written by: Brian Duffield & Adam Cozad
Starring: Kristen Stewart, Jessica Henwick, T.J. Miller, Vincent Cassel, John Gallagher Jr., Mamoudou Athie & Gunner Wright
ARLEY SORG, Associate Editor, grew up in England, Hawaii, and Colorado. He studied Asian Religions at Pitzer College. He lives in Oakland, and usually writes in local coffee shops. A 2014 Odyssey Writing Workshop graduate, he is soldering together a novel, has thrown a few short stories into orbit, and hopes to launch more.
JOSH PEARCE, Assistant Editor, started working at Locus in 2016. He studied creative writing at SFSU and has sold short stories and poems to a variety of speculative fiction magazines. Born and raised in the Bay Area, he currently lives in the East Bay with his wife and son and spends way too much time on Twitter: @fictionaljosh. One time, Ken Jennings signed his chest.
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