The horror genre has long been a vehicle for filmmakers to take creative liberties and experiment with new ideas. Director William Eubank's genre-bending Underwater is the latest creature feature to stir elements of sci-fi, survival and terror onto the big screen. Originally filmed in 2017, Underwater stands out as a terrifying aquatic adventure that supports its predictable plot with a chilling atmosphere, thrilling tone and original creature design.
Underwater follows Norah (Kristen Stewart), an aquatic researcher and mechanical engineer stationed on a deep sea mining operation at the bottom of the Mariana Trench. Due to unknown circumstances a portion of the facility fails, succumbing to the immense pressure at the bottom of the ocean. Norah and fellow crew member Rodrigo (Mamoudou Athie) make it through the catastrophe and set out in search of other survivors.
After rescuing Paul (T.J. Miller), and linking up with Captain (Vincent Cassel), Emily (Jessica Henwick) and Smith (John Gallagher Jr.) the group decides to make a last ditch effort to sprint across the ocean floor in pressurized mech suits. Their target is Roebuck Station, a safe haven approximately one mile away. Undeterred by their lack of oxygen and faulty equipment they venture forth only to encounter something more dangerous than the open ocean – a mysterious species awakened by the drilling.
Despite the PG-13 rating, Underwater is brutal.
What starts out as a deep-sea mining mission gone wrong dives right into an effective on-screen exercise into paranoia, claustrophobia and thalassophobia (an intense fear of the sea, which I may have now). Don’t let the cushy PG-13 rating fool you. Underwater revels in the harsh reality of deep sea physics. At such depth, humans are subject to high levels of pressure and internal gas compression. Rapid changes in pressure, such as exposure to the ocean floor without a protective layer, can lead to some pretty gruesome side effects. Think spontaneous explosion – and yeah, it's disturbing. There’s more than one instance of this grisly phenomenon in Underwater, and that kind of intensity doesn’t stop there.
William Eubank does an impressive job of capturing all your worst fears on screen. The unnerving elements of tight spaces, poor visibility and disorientation are heightened with tight camera work and a killer score. Even though the setting and physics of deep sea drilling are scary enough, the true horror of Underwater lies in the design of its creatures.
Underwater features horrifying Lovecraftian visuals.
Although they remain hidden for most of the film, Underwater's primordial monsters were clearly designed with H.P. Lovecraft in mind. They are mysterious, maddening, and downright dangerous. The mere sight of one is nearly enough to drive Emily out of her mind during their first encounter. Going further in detail would broach spoiler territory, but these devils of the depths induce terror with every appearance.
The Lovecraftian elements don’t stop there. Underwater takes place at the bottom of the sea and the characters feel as though they are the aliens intruding into foreign territory. The further they push into the unknown, the more they realize that they are the ones who don’t belong. Unfortunately, just as those interesting themes of cosmic horror are introduced, Underwater’s plot abandons ship.
Shallow plot and a lack of character development leaves Underwater feeling like a glass half full.
In contrast to the deeper themes of sanity, hopelessness, and the unknown, Underwater's plot is relatively shallow. Fortunately, the aforementioned is enough to sustain a tired and predictable story with little to no character development from most of the cast. T.J. Miller's Paul doesn't go more than 10 minutes without an Alice In Wonderland reference, but the decent into madness motif is neglected at the behest of moving the plot forward in a predictable manner. It's deeply unfortunate considering the haunting tone and atmosphere that's created. The movie does so much right, that you wish William Eubank would have taken it just a little bit further. Nonetheless Kristen Stewart dishes out an impressive performance, but her character is written with such apathy that you will be left wanting more when the credits roll.
That’s not to say Underwater is a shipwreck. It’s quite the opposite. In fact, it achieves a memorable and distressing tone immediately, and refuses to let go for the duration of its 95 minute runtime. Thanks to an eerie atmosphere, anxiety inducing camera work, and fresh creature design, the movie is elevated above its surface-level plot to a frightening game of cat and mouse, reminiscent of Jaws.
Into tracksuits by Paulie Walnuts, the Criterion Channel and Robert Eggers.
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