Accused of being a rip-off of Alien, with an underwater setting as opposed to space, Underwater wears its influences on a sleeve, but it never tries to be anything more than an entertaining, action-packed horror movie. This is, simultaneously, the best and the worst aspect about it.
Directed by William Eubank – who showed some talent in the past with The Signal (2014) – and starring Kristen Stewart, Vincent Cassel and TJ Miller among the others, Underwater is an action-horror movie I was kind of afraid to watch. On one hand, the trailer looked rather promising and the director had me intrigued to the potential that emerged in his previous projects. On the other, though, Underwater was thrown in theatres in the middle of January (a dreadful month for cinema), was given a PG-13 rating (another red flag) and features Kristen Stewart in a leading role: I’m sorry, but I don’t think she’s ever given a decent performance in her entire career, even in good films she appeared in like Panic Room (2002), Into the Wild (2007) and Personal Shopper (2016).
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Underwater – plot and intent
In short, a crew of aquatic researchers work to get to safety after an earthquake devastates their subterranean laboratory. As they proceed in their attempts at fixing the station and get themselves in a safer position, the crew led by mechanical engineer Norah Price (Kristen Stewart) and Captain Lucien (Vincent Cassel) finds a more sinister entity, which turns their rescue mission into a fight for survival.
The plot similarities to Ridley Scott’s Alien are quite uncanny, but that doesn’t make Underwater a bad movie. In fact, you can tell a lot of passion and effort were put by the director and the actors: while Underwater isn’t an original movie – and it doesn’t try to hide the fact that it was heavily inspired by Alien, Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) and The Abyss (1989) – every scene and setting is crafted with a lot of care. For example, the filmmakers shot on dark stages with no lights for the underwater scenes. They used volumetric scanning, by putting atmosphere around the actors and letting the flashlights move through the particles. In terms of recreating a realistic environment, the actors wore airtight suits (each suit weighed about 140 lbs) for the underwater scenes, making it hard to hear the filmmakers’ directions.
A well-made, scary and claustrophobic ride
The same effort was put into shooting every scene in the most genuine, intense and claustrophobic way possible. Even though Underwater is filled with jump-scares, their presence doesn’t feel forced because they aren’t fake, and they are utilised only when the setting has already enhanced tension and anxiety in the viewer. The pace is crisp throughout the film and, despite its high budget ($80,000,000), the movie relies on CGI (well-made, too) only when strictly necessary. During some sequences, Underwater reminded me of The Descent (2005) for its ability to generate tension solely based on claustrophobic settings and on the uncomfortable position the actors were actually placed in.
This required a huge effort from the actors, who worked under hard conditions in the filming of Underwater. Their commitment is very commendable. For the role, Kristen Stewart shaved her head in order to avoid using makeup or wigs that might look fake and unconvincing. However, what’s most impressive about the performances in the movie is the level of physical effort required from them, which makes you identify with their struggles infinitely more than if the film was entirely shot against greenscreen.
Characters and writing
Despite the cast’s commitment, Underwater suffers from an incredibly evident lack of character development: unlike the movie it tried to imitate the most, Underwater doesn’t feature any sequence where we can understand the characters’ personality and motivation, making it extremely hard for the viewer to care about them. This is, obviously, a problem with the script.
The screenwriters didn’t just put the least amount of effort in the story, but they also wrote unbearably cheesy and lazy dialogue that no actor can make sound decent. In fact, aside from the third-act twist that raises the stakes even higher, the writing for Underwater feels lazy (plot-wise), uninspired (character choices and progression) and insufferable (dialogue and confrontations).
Aside from the script, the other big flaw with Underwater is its PG-13 rating: had this movie been rated R, the most intense scenes would’ve also been gorier, more creative and more impactful. This, unfortunately, is not the case as the movie feels toned down quite a bit to receive a PG-13 rating.
Even though it was never meant as a ground-breaking sci-fi horror film, Underwater had the potential to be much better than it was, if only more effort was put into the writing and the studio went for an R rating. Despite these unfortunate decisions, Underwater manages to be intense and exhilarating during every action sequence, providing a 90-minute-long thrilling ride you should watch if you’re looking for mindless (yet, well-made) entertainment.
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