William Eubank’s tremulous “Underwater” finally hits theatrical shores after being stuck in merger transit for the past year. 20th Century Fox’s disaster-horror hybrid submerges audiences in immediate chaos but provides far too much exposition oxygen. From the hyperactive headline clipping montage opener that foreshadows oceanic retaliation to the anecdotal ramblings of the surviving crew, there’s far less organic world-building than there is telegraphed pandemonium. Kristen Stewart makes compelling use of this action star vehicle to resurrect her mainstream viability, but her involvement in future big-budget projects might require shrewder discernment if this qualifies as blockbuster bad-assery.
Kristen Stewart plays Norah Price, an Ellen Ripley in undergarment nonchalance only. Unlike the iconic “Alien” heroine, writers Brian Duffield and Adam Cozad are more concerned with how Norah feels than how she leads. It’s unclear whether Norah is a researcher or engineer, but either way, she’s immensely skilled at troubleshooting her way out of danger. Her worksite is a massive laboratory seven miles below sea, linked by several individual research stations. Someone high up on the corporate ladder got a little too excited and sanctioned a massive drill of the ocean floor. Consequently, a massive force of unknown origin reacts to the perforation by obliterating Norah’s workforce zone. The ensuing structural collapse rockets Norah out of her lavatory sulk and into extreme survival mode.
After making a major sacrifice early on, Norah follows emergency protocol until an unexpected terrestrial threat reveals itself. Tagging along for the flooding nightmare are colleague survivors Rodrigo (Mamoudou Athie), Liam (John Gallagher, Jr.), Paul (T.J. Miller), Emily (Jessica Henwick in a memorable breakout role), and the unnamed Captain (Vincent Cassel) who supervises the rescue charge. The crew realistically employs humor as a means of coping through their ongoing trauma, though some personal mementos and proclamations of affection border on saccharine. The script’s insistence on prioritizing love above survival — particularly to safeguard heterosexual romance — is as problematic as it is frustrating.
Numbers eventually dwindle, the deep blue sea has monsters of its own that go bump in the dark, and all the while viewers grow concerned that a predictable conclusion is bound to materialize. It’s a pity the aquatic thriller falls prey to the common horror filmmaker assumption that the characters in peril, are cared about more than they are. Other than Norah and Emily, no team member is given the amount of complex characterization to warrant spending so much time on pep talks and confidence boosts. Every moviegoer who goes into this film already has the utmost respect for these researchers who cut off their personal lives in pursuit of dangerous scientific discovery. There is never a question of capability, so why does the movie so desperately want to waste time proving it?
“Underwater’s” production design and digital creature effects are astounding for the modestly budgeted price. The attention to detail is sometimes obscured by the frenetic energy within frame, but the interior sets and diving suit aesthetics are visual knockouts. Although 2K Games’ “Bioshock” first-person shooter was never given the live-action movie treatment, the protective gear worn by the group resembles those worn by the “Big Daddy” enemies from the series.
“Underwater” may flop as a film, but it would make an incredibly immersive survival horror video game franchise. The way alien terror frequently assails the team is reminiscent of Electronic Arts’ “Dead Space,” ironic considering Norah’s elusive husband is played by Gunner Wright, who voices the game’s main protagonist. Based on some of the first-person perspective shots and anxiety-ridden traipsing towards a foreseeable jump-scare, it’s clear Eubank is a fan of merging mediums to maximize fright.
While the plunge isn’t as enthralling as advertised — especially disappointing given the caliber of Stewart’s understated magnetism — there are fleeting memorable moments of genuine dread worth experiencing. Part of the charm is how self-contained the corporate calamity is, unshackled from the surface world’s influence or aid. Moreover, future original films should follow suit by looking down instead of up for the real mines of exploration. Or even better, look towards other entertainment platforms for creative enhancement. The video game medium is often dismissed for its emotionally limited interactivity, but “Underwater” would be a superior ride had it cut its human baggage early and embraced unrelenting atmospheric obstacle.
“Underwater” is distributed by 20th Century Fox under Walt Disney Studios and arrives in theaters nationwide on Jan. 10, 2020.