REVIEW – ‘Underwater’ is too generic to be truly memorable

In another case of a major studio dumping a film in January and hoping no one will notice, Underwater finally arrives in cinemas after bizarrely gathering dust in the 20th Century Fox vault since production wrapped way back in May 2017. The problem of what to do with this film obviously now falls to Disney, who’ve seemingly discarded it at the start of 2020 to clear it off their books. After viewing the film, you begin to understand why.

A film that rarely refuses to do little else but echo Alien at practically every turn (even its wide-spaced title treatment is total plagiarism), Underwater is ultimately a film ambitiously attempting homage but seemingly forgetting to offer anything of its own. Despite the earnest efforts of its leading lady and the occasional thrills, everything here feels so achingly redundant and derivative of so many other schlocky monster thrillers that all offer so much more.

An opening credits sequence lazily provides the heavy exposition set up via a series of newspaper headlines (Godzilla, anyone?) where we learn nefarious company Tian Industries intends to drill seven miles beneath the ocean’s surface to the bottom of the Mariana Trench (The Meg says hello) and tap the area for its potential bountiful resources.

At the base of the pipeline lies the Kepler 822 Station; a mega research facility, manned by a crew of 316 and where we lay our scene. After a large earthquake (or was it?!) causes a catastrophic breach, the facility begins to buckle under the deep-sea pressure. Barely making it out alive, mechanical engineer Norah Price (Kristen Stewart) soon realises the accident has caused the death of most of her crewmates and the majority of those who survived have already jetted out of the facility in escape pods.

After locating fellow survivor Rodrigo Nagenda (a horribly underused Mamoudou Athie), the pair crawl through the rubble to the facility’s main operational quarters, rescuing wise-cracking Paul Abel (T.J. Miller, obviously cast before his career implosion) along the way. It’s here the trio meets up with Captain Lucien (Vincent Cassel), his research assistant Emily Haversham (Jessica Henwick), and operations manager Liam Smith (John Gallagher Jr., who’s better than this).

With all the escape pods deployed, the group soon realise their only option is to leave the facility on a potential suicide mission, descending to the pitch-black ocean floor in high-tech suits and walk over a mile to the main drilling station known as Roebuck Station 641. But after Liam plays the last known audio recording from the station, the survivors hear some decidedly strange noises that suggest it wasn’t an earthquake that brought doom to the facility.

While it will probably come as a relief to learn Underwater only runs for a brisk 94 minutes, it means the chaos kicks in barely minutes after the film begins. It’s refreshing to see a film get straight to its point, but it’s at the sacrifice of any semblance of character definition, leaving an audience feeling entirely disconnected from this group of survivors. Director William Eubank seemingly has little interest in providing any reasons for us to care whether these doomed souls live or die.

Along the journey, we learn the occasional tidbit about each character to thinly flesh them out; Norah is still grieving over the death of her fiancé, Lucien pines for his 14-year-old daughter, Liam secretly likes Emily, Emily secretly likes him back, and Paul cherishes a plush rabbit toy for some inexplicable reason. But the screenplay by Brian Duffield and Adam Cozad refuses to delve further into any of these character details, begging the question of why they’re even mentioned in the first place. Heroines are often afflicted by grief, but Norah’s backstory just feels like something tacked on to give her some sense of emotional resonance.

Once the horror elements of Underwater truly kick in, the film navigates through an endless series of jump scares that mostly fail to elicit any true terror, despite Eubank’s insistence on using constant high-pitched screeching sounds in a vain attempt to terrify his audience. There’s a distinct lack of originality to the action, with practically every moment feeling terribly predictable and foreseen.

For better or worse, this film follows a formula and rarely reaches for anything we haven’t seen dozens of times before. Mind you, that’s what we can actually see. While it’s clear Eubank wants Underwater to look entirely authentic, it means most of the action scenes on the seafloor are befouled by constant murkiness, causing many of the film’s potentially impressive moments to be genuinely visually incomprehensible. It’s fine to craft something that feels genuine, but not at the expense of truly frustrating a viewer.

In the almost three years since production wrapped, it seems evident Underwater has been chopped and sliced into a final product that’s beset by fatal pacing issues. Several scenes are rushed through haphazardly, robbing them of any potential tension, and numerous times the film inexplicably cuts to black to avoid the necessity to craft moments an audience really should have seen.

And, if you like your creature features with lashings of blood and gore, don’t expect to see any here. Most of the death scenes either take place off-camera or they’ve been toned down heavily to snatch a softer classification rating. The creatures are interestingly designed and the film seems to follow the age-old Jaws rule of teasing the big reveal for as long as possible. It’s one element of Underwater that will keep your interest, even if the final pay-off is also a little too familiar if you’ve recently watched Cloverfield.

There are the occasional ingenious cinematography choices from Bojan Bazellinamely when we switch to POV mode and see the view from directly inside Norah’s claustrophobic underwater helmet. These moments naturally feel more like a video game, but it’s here where an audience may feel some form of fear, as we navigate the seabed in a more personal fashion. But Bazelli has a penchant for completely unnecessary slow-motion moments that bring absolutely nothing to this picture.

As expected, Underwater can’t help but sneak in a not-so-subtle environmentally conscious message, with the appearance of the creatures apparently the result of man meddling with Mother Nature and drawing her wrath. There’s nothing wrong with a monster/horror film reaching for a deeper message, but we’ve seen this exact rhetoric before and it’s so eye-rollingly dull to see it dragged up again.

While Stewart tries her utmost to save this film, even her talents can’t quite rescue Underwater from the bottom of the ocean where it belongs. Norah is nothing but a Ripley clone, from the androgynous hairstyle to the screenplay constantly forcing Stewart to strip down to her underwear for bafflingly silly reasons. It remains unclear what exactly attracted now-indie darling to this project, but you can’t bemoan an actor for just taking a paycheck every now and then.

If you keep your expectations low, there’s every chance you could have a breezily enjoyable time with Underwater. It’s far from the most original film you’ll see this year but it could provide a welcome respite from the current slew of awards season contenders dominating cinemas, especially with its surprisingly short running time.

There was the chance here to do something wonderfully unique, especially with someone as talented as Stewart at the helm. Sadly, Underwater consistently takes the safe path and offers little more than plot points, characters, and set-pieces we’ve seen elsewhere. It’s too generic to be truly memorable, so perhaps it should have remained locked up in the vault.

Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Cast: Kristen Stewart, Vincent Cassel, T.J. Miller, Jessica Henwick, John Gallagher Jr., Mamoudou Athie
Director: William Eubank
Producers: Peter Chernin, Tonia Davis, Jenno Topping
Screenplay: Brian Duffield, Adam Cozad
Cinematography: Bojan Bazelli
Production Design: Naaman Marshall
Costume Design: Dorotka Sapinska
Music: Marco Beltrami, Brandon Roberts

Editing: Brian Berdan, William Hoy, Todd E. Miller
Running Time: 94 minutes
Release Date: 23rd January 2020 (Australia)