“Underwater” is a film whose marketing campaign is doing it no favors. Going in, after having seen the trailers, I was expecting it would be a modernest slapdash blend of a greatest hits mash up of “Alien,” “The Abyss.” and “DeepStar Six.” While the trailers don’t let in too much on the story specifics, but regular viewers of genre films will recognize the various classic moments in a hot second. However scriptwriter Brian Duffield (whose last outing was 2017’s underrated “The Babysitter“) shows again that his approach to character shorthand helps elevate a film into something that is actually more (and better) than one might expect going in.
Yes, those greatest hits – they’re absolutely all there (right down to some of the computer audio effects from the bridge of “Alien” Nostromo). It also throws in some visuals that will make Lovecraft fans squee with delight, expressing, “ok, Hollywood, that’s how that sh*t is supposed to look”.
It’s been a while since we’ve seen Kristen Stewart in a mainstream Hollywood film, as she’s been having some excellent turns in the independent-film scene. Now we get her with a double feature back to back, in the recent “Charlie’s Angels” revisitation, and now “Underwater.” She’s bringing that indie-gravitas and intensity to a role that had she done this back circa “Snow White”/”Breaking Dawn” she would have likely bounced off of trying to bring life to an Ellen Ripley/Dr. Lindsey Brigman type character. Here she does a pretty respectable performance – I’d have to say that after this I could see Stewart as Amanda Ripley.
The film’s tight 90-odd minute running time doesn’t waste a lot of downtime. Things hit water about two minutes into the film, and it pretty much rolls straight through. There’s not a lot of extensive exposition and fretting over the why and how – they just work out their options for getting out of the hot water they find themselves in, and then head out to try and make it. If there’s a spot where there’s some very, very rough edges, it’s the science of a super-massive installation at the bottom of the Marianas Trench. Anyone who might be fans of deep-sea exploration will know at first glance the issues with their station and for some it may be enough to pull you out of the experience. It’s like a super-sized version of sound in space.
The other challenge is the presence of “Silicon Valley” alum, T.J. Miller. His presence reminds us that Underwater had actually had its principal photography completed by Q3 of 2017, which is before all of his legal, personal, and professional issues had come to light. So here he is and it’s relatively awkward watching him, especially as he plays nearly the same clownish self that he usually does. So while the rest of the film is super dark and tense, he’s cracking jokes that are just too light for the situation at hand. He does settle down for a while, but he’s very much the odd character out, with the others, including the always-brilliant Vincent Cassel as Captain Lucien committing in an admirable way.
The lack of focus on exposition and explaining and keeping the tension strong helps keep one from thinking too much about the absurd elements of the situation. Between the atmosphere, the performances, and the quick pacing, you’re relatively likely to just going to go with it So, it’s not great, and isn’t likely going to wind up on anyone’s classics list, however if you’re looking for a tense and fun ride in the equivalent of an underwater haunted house that’s collapsing around our heroes’ heads, then you’re very likely going to have a great time here.
Rating: 3 stars out of 5.
“Underwater” is rated PG-13 (yes, really, and I’m kind of surprised, too) and is in theaters everywhere.