Underwater is a survival horror/sci-fi creature feature about a group of oil drillers at the bottom of the Mariana Trench who unknowingly drill too deep and release something most foul and scary. As their underwater base begins to fall apart, they must race against the clock to get to the escape pods to evade, not only the falling debris of their base, but some scary monsters as well. If this seems like something you’ve heard or seen this movie before it’s because you have. This movie does nothing new here. Claustrophobic setting? Check. Small cast? Check. Dark sci-fi setting? Check. Jumpscares? Check. You can predict everything that is going to happen the moment the credits begin to roll. So why bother watching it?
The comparisons to Alien, Cloverfield, and even the cult-classic Pandorum will be obvious and I found myself rolling my eyes to the references and homages. I felt cheated the first time I watched it. The premise was really cool and it seemed like they squandered it. But that was me going knowing that 20th Century Fox released a horror movie in January, which is rarely a good sign.
However, I felt I was judging this movie too harshly. So I watched it again and gave it another chance. Maybe there was something there that I didn’t see. And to my shock, there was.
There are a couple good reasons why Underwater is actually worth giving a chance. For one thing, it’s a good mix of practical settings and CGI. Everything is small, cramped and constantly dripping. The budget for this movie was clearly small but director William Eubank utilized everything. You feel like you’re there with the characters, which is to be commended. And something that I must also commend is the restraint.
For most of Underwater, you never get a clear view of the monsters. There’s a couple flashing light close ups and several “blink and you’ll miss them” moments, but for the most part — nothing. Your mind is left to fill in the blanks of what these creatures are, which is more terrifying than an actual monster sighting. The fear of the unknown is something that feels both easy and hard when it comes to cinema (see example A: Jaws). You have to set it up well for the imagination to take over. And by golly did I feel creeped out when I couldn’t finish the puzzle this movie laid out in front of me.
Once the end hits, you realize what the real monster of the movie was all along. Now I won’t spoil, but the monster is something we’ve ACTUALLY seen before. It’s hinted at multiple times throughout the film, and while it does feel cheap, I must give the filmmakers credit for having the courage to use this creature. Also, most of the death scenes, while seen from a distance, are actually pretty gruesome and I found myself muttering “Holy @*&$!” and “f*$% me”. If you ever wanted to know what trillions of pounds of water pressure does to the human body, well, now you know.
Another positive is that the movie wastes no time. We’re thrown right into the action by the ten minute mark and it doesn’t let up until the final frame. A lesser movie would have tried to go the usual route of slow build and bad execution. This movie knows what it is and does the best it can to make you scared and terrified. There’s this sense of a ticking clock, like if they don’t get this done NOW, everyone is dead. Unfortunately, that tension is occasionally hindered by wonky editing choices, which may have to do with the lower budget. Multiple times there would be an intense sequence where we have no idea what’ll happen to our heroes. Then … CUT TO BLACK, followed by everything being ok in the next scene.
Sadly the characters are bare bones and super forgettable. That’s not to say they’re poorly acted, as every actor and actress here does their part well. Kristen Stewart is fine, but doesn’t really doing anything new and mostly felt like she was trying to play Ripley. T.J. Miller is the comic relief and does his job. Most of his jokes aren’t terrible and he does bring some levity to an over wise hopeless movie. The cast works well off each other and they have chemistry. Even with the lack of character development, I could still feel their attachment for one another.
And believe it or not, these horror characters actually make smart decisions at times. Like closing a door when there’s banging on the outer door. Smacking sense into a nonsensical person to make them listen. Telling them to come back. For a movie like this, I’m actually shocked. But they still make horrendously dumb decisions, like sticking their hand in a dead body that’s still clearly moving. Touching a monster squid without any protection. Or going back for the gun when you clearly shouldn’t. Frustrating horror tropes persist, but it wouldn’t be a horror movie without them, now would it?
Verdict: 3 out of 5 Stars
Underwater is certainly not the worst thing I’ve ever seen. I was actually scared at plenty points throughout, thanks in part to William Eubank having some incredible talent for atmosphere that made movie look better than it had any right to be. The cast and crew were clearly trying and never half-assed their performances. But that being said, it’s still predicable and no amount of underwater deaths will want to make me rewatch it a third time.
In terms of original non-franchise stories, “Alien, but set underwater” sounds incredible. But this movie needed a lot more and ultimately feels like another Alien clone. We’ve seen it before and done better. Maybe this could have worked better as a Cloverfield tie-in, or simply with a bigger budget. We’ll never know know for certain. But while most horror movies in January tend to be bad, Underwater certainly isn’t one of them.