Underwater (2020)

7 Miles Below the Ocean Surface Something Has Awakened

When an earthquake strikes underwater oil drilling platform Kepler 822, most of the crew manage to get to the life pods, but a mixed bag of genre movie archetypes, including tough gal mechanical engineer Norah Price (Kristen Stewart), paternal Captain Lucien (Vincent Cassel), comedy relief Paul Abel (T.J. Miller), and cute couple Emily Haversham (Jessica Henwick) and Liam Smith (John Gallagher Jr.) are left behind and must effect their own escape. There are only a few obstacles in their way: 1) they’re under seven miles of water, 2) they’ll need to walk a mile to a different underwater station, and 3) that weren’t no earthquake …

Plaque ain’t the only problem down here.

Oceanography and horror are two of my favorite things, and so when they come together, I’m guaranteed to show up. We got a cluster of similar films in the late ’80s that almost certainly had a profound effect on my developing psyche, with James Cameron’s The Abyss (1989) being the best of the bunch, Friday the 13th director Sean S. Cunningham’s DeepStar Six (1989) being the worst, and journeyman George P. Cosmatos’ Leviathan (1989) sitting right in the middle. Which is where Underwater sits, too. It’s a good old-fashioned creature feature, with a bunch of stalwart stereotypes navigating an interesting and evocative environment while getting picked off one by one by some effects shop grotesquerie.

We used to get flicks like these on the reg, but the bifurcation of film budgets has all but eliminated them from the slate; the low budget horror that the likes of Blumhouse truck intends to eschew critters for human villains in order to cut costs, while the upper echelon tentpoles don’t want anything that might scare the kids away, which is why we never got Guillermo del Toro’s big-budget adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness. The recent Stephen King renaissance is an anomaly, but then again, Big Steve has always been an outlier. Just believe me when I say the world was a better place when mid-budget monster movies like The Relic (1997), Deep Rising (1998), and even Jaws-with-paws The Ghost and the Darkness (1996) would reliably show up at the multiplexes for a few weeks. Thrills, kills, and animatronic beasties — who could ask for more?

‘There’s definitely something following us.’

The fact that director William Eubank, The Signal (2014), shot this thing back in 2017 and it’s sat on the shelf since then speaks to what an anachronism Underwater is, and it’s kind of amazing it ever found a theatrical slot even in the January dumping ground; if it had premiered on Netflix I doubt anyone would have batted an eyelid. That’s not a diss, mind you, but merely an acknowledgment of the current state of the market. Still, Underwater is worth making a trip to the fleapit for. It works great with an appreciative crowd who are game for the attendant jump scares and the murky, claustrophobic atmosphere. The practical sets and diving suits are impressive (although there are moments when the latter look a tad rubbery), and there’s some first-rate underwater and dry-for-wet photography that looks great on a big screen. The tone of the whole piece is wonderfully oppressive — the sense that our protagonists are willfully carving out a little pocket of light and air inside a horrifically hostile and indifferent environment is palpable.

Narratively, there’s very little fat on the script by Brian Duffield, The Babysitter (2017), and Adam Cozad, The Legend of Tarzan (2016), which drops us into the action with a minimum of fuss and exposition — one second Stewart’s Price is brushing her teeth and ruminating in voice-over about how time seems distorted at the bottom of the ocean, the next shot things are imploding, the water is rising, and we’re in full-on survival mode. It’s a supremely functional work of story scaffolding, lightly sketching the characters and trusting the cast to give them some spark (Stewart, honestly, one of the best actors we’ve got at the moment, is great here) and setting up goals and obstacles that are clear and understandable. Except for, you know, the monsters.

‘Let’s just try to keep our heads above water.’

I don’t want to dwell too much on the featured creatures because a big part of the fun is the gradual revelation of what exactly is going on and how deep in the shit our plucky aquanauts are. With the caveat that this is ever so slightly spoilery, I had a problem with the humanoid creature design — why would anything living that far down be humanish at all? — until I figured out the angle the film was playing, but that’s a minor quibble, and belongs to the side with other quibbles about how air pressure affects human physiology at depth, lighting conditions on the ocean floor, the horrible implications of ascending at speed, and other technical details that anyone who has spent a little time underwater will laugh or scowl at, but sane, largely terrestrial viewers will not even notice.

At the end of the day, Underwater doesn’t rewrite the rulebook, but then again, it never tries to — its sole aim is to deliver a compact, efficient little thrill ride, and it does so admirably. If you’re a fan of this type of thing, this is the sort of thing you’ll like — a streamlined 95 minutes of briny horror from beyond the ken of man. I’ll take a half dozen like it every year, please and thank you.

3 / 5 – Good

Reviewed by Travis Johnson

Underwater is released through 20th Century Fox Australia