DEPTH BECOMES HER
Review: David Stephens
Another US studio horror doggy-paddles lackadaisically across the Atlantic to the UK, one whole month after it’s been released globally elsewhere. But at least it’s not another reboot/remake, and it belongs to a sub-genre that is underused in the cinema. That of the underwater monster movie. Whilst “Jaws” was the Great-Granddaddy of aquatic scare-fests, and oodles of shark movies continue unabated, the exciting potential of watery creatures grabbing you and not letting go is still severely lacking. Classic stuff like “Creature from the Black Lagoon” and Disney’s “20,000 Leagues under the Sea” (THAT giant squid!), along with guilty pleasures like “Warlords of Atlantis”, made a big impression on many people’s childhoods. The 80s had a few memorable efforts with “Deep Star Six” and “Leviathan”. But recently… If it ain’t got that (shark) fin, then it won’t have that zing for the big screen. “Underwater” comes to us from director William Eubank, who made the mind-bending sci-fi “The Signal” in 2014. It stars Kristen Stewart (who has remained somewhat in the genre with praised projects like “Personal Shopper” and “Lizzie”) but has remained in limbo for some time due to the Fox/Disney takeover. It’s now (finally) in UK cinemas, so YGROY takes a deep breath and dives in.
At some point in the near future, a global corporation is drilling for resources at the bottom of the Mariana Trench (the go-to place for spooky deep-sea shenanigans). As engineer Norah Price (Stewart) is going about her business, a massive quake rocks the large underwater complex, destroying key parts of the facility and causing more than a few fatalities. Due to quick thinking, she manages to save a few lives and the survivors meet up with Captain Lucien (Vincent Cassell) to work out their next move in the rapidly disintegrating marine structure. This turns out to be a perilous stroll across the ocean floor and through some maintenance tunnels in cumbersome diving suits. This is bad enough, but then they realise that they’re not alone down there…
The film comes to British shores with a lot of negative baggage from the US run at theatres. And to be honest, we’ve got one real annoyance when it comes to the film in general. The marketing has been shoddy and totally misrepresents the movie. Most US images and promos just focused on moody facial shots of Stewart in a diving suit, doing an I’m-in-the-shit-here expression. It looks like a film that could be from any genre, possibly a sunken “Die Hard” rip-off with a female lead. Only the strapline “something has awoken” points to it being a creature feature. Even the trailers seem embarrassed to broach the fact that it is essentially a monster movie. Only one promo poster (which we’ve featured previously) with a toothy maw opening in the aquatic darkness points towards the best elements of this movie. Also, that title. What if “Jaws” had been released as “Amity Island”, or “Alien” as “Space”? You get the picture… The UK posters go a little way towards genre leanings, but it’s still ambiguous. Why so coy?
It’s something of a shame because the set-up and basic concepts in “Underwater” have the potential to be killer! Whilst the start of the film (and the shit hits the fan in the first 2 minutes) is pure “disaster movie” material, it ensures that the narrative hits the floor running and pretty much never stops from thereon in. Sure, it’s very derivative of stuff like “The Poseidon Adventure” or other water-centric-physics-light dramas, but at least it starts with a real bang and from that point, the narrative almost runs in real-time as things go from bad to worse. But it’s during the latter half of the film that it really nails some of its full potential, as the story gradually descends (literally) into more eldritch horror. The idea of walking through absolute blackness (with “something” out there) and within the claustrophobic confines of a suit, is exploited very neatly in several scenes. The camera shares the diving-helmet with Stewart's face, as murky threats assault the characters, and the mood becomes even more oppressive and doom-laden. This is full-on mainstream horror trope material and all the better for it. Don’t expect subtle scares but do expect teased creature effects that are then properly dropped in your lap in later scenes. With no spoilers, there is a genuinely nightmarish scene between Stewart and an “antagonist” that is unusually disturbing and gross for a film like this. And (with no spoilers again) the climax lives up to its name, with some heavy hints that the events are closely related to some classic literary horror roots… and for this (if nothing else) it certainly deserves some credit at least.
The negative feedback from the States (and the UK) has mostly centred on the sheer amount of clichés and lack of character development, not to mention the foray into monster-dom which was apparently a left-field twist that some critics have issues with (why?). It is true that you can make major comparisons between the aesthetics of “Underwater” and many other films, especially “Alien” (realistic-but-futuristic environment, female protagonist, and weird creatures). You could also compare some sequences to suspiciously familiar ones in “Gravity”, “Cloverfield”, and even Danny Boyle’s “Sunshine”. And yes, there’s little in the way of character development, but given the running time and pace, should you expect any major revelations? Overall though, it’s a tight and efficient larger-budget effort that stands out from other recent genre offerings (like the disappointing “Grudge” and “Turning”). Refreshingly there are no real obvious stereotypes, and amazingly no cowardly villains. Everybody does their best for the team without question, with even T.J. Miller’s predictably smart-assed Paul Abel (“I’m just on the verge of shitting myself”) giving up his own safety to look for survivors.
Stewart’s Norah reacts realistically to shock and extreme situations, and if the role could be played by any decent character actress, at least it feels like she’s making the effort here and puts in some nice emotional and physical responses. There’s also some awesome backing music by Marco Beltrami & Brandon Roberts (“A Quiet Place”), and some really nice slo-mo action shots.
It is by no means a classic sci-fi horror, but it doesn’t deserve the slamming that it’s had from various quarters. Some of the dialogue is inaudible and a lot of the visuals are (by necessity) “murky”. But it still grips in many parts and has the guts to push the envelope in terms of what you might be expecting in a studio film like this. If you were anticipating a low-key “Abyss” rip-off (as the promos suggest), then this is far closer to horror than you might expect. We enjoyed it much more than we were expecting to from advance word-of-mouth (and reviews), and it works better knowing that it is a fully-fledged genre experience. It also benefits immensely from being seen on a big screen, which sadly is going to be a short window in the UK. Still, whilst we weren’t expecting a rival to “Quiet Place” in terms of quality, it’s a nice and efficient palate cleanser whilst we wait for the sequel to that gem in a few weeks’ time. Water relief…