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"Underwater" Review

Studios making competing movies with similar themes happens from time to time, resulting in situations like dueling volcano movies (Dante's Peak and Volcano) or big celestial something about to destroy Earth movies (Armageddon and Deep Impact).

But 1989 was special in that there were three "something happening at the bottom of the ocean" movies released: Leviathan, DeepStar Six, and the Big One that the other two raced to beat to theaters, James Cameron's follow-up to Aliens, The Abyss. (Which STILL has never received a proper home video release.) Arriving three decades later (and a year-and-a-half after the similarly-themed monster shark movie The Meg due to the film languishing on the shelf after filming in 2017, which is why T.J. Miller is present back when he still had a career), comes the blah-titled Underwater.

Starring a buzzcut Kristen Stewart as a mechanical engineer at a drilling installation at the bottom of the Marianas Trench, the deepest part of the ocean where these movies are invariably set, the movie gets going almost immediately with a literal bang as what feels like an earthquake triggers a catastrophic collapse of the station. She is barely able to close a bulkhead in time to prevent total disaster, but has to condemn a pair of random workers to an instant death as they raced to safety.

Along with another survivor who may as well be wearing a red shirt (Mamoudou Athie), they proceed through the wreckage to reach escape pods, meeting along the way a trapped worker (T.J. Miller, playing the T.J. Miller part he always plays), the Captain of the rig (Vincent Cassel), a biologist (Jessica Henwick) and her engineer boyfriend (John Gallagher, Jr.).

With all the escape pods gone, communications with the surface cut, and the rig's nuclear reactor damaged and 30 minutes away from overloading and exploding, they need to get the heck out of there. Cassel's plan is to get to the ocean floor, traverse a tunnel to a sub-station, then walk a mile in pitch dark to another drill site where they should find escape pods. Along the way, they discover Something Is Down Here With Us which adds an extra layer of tension because visibility is almost nil and thus your first clue that a monster is about to get you is a monster getting you.

There are two competing aspects to Underwater which simultaneously elevate it above B-movie level and also sink it. On the plus side, the production design of the film is excellent, especially the dive suits which look like something out of the StarCraft games. The various installation environments look legitimately industrial and used.

The visual effects are also believable. Unlike The Abyss, which was actually filmed underwater in an abandoned nuclear power plant cooling tower, Underwater was shot on soundstages with the actors in dive helmets without glass and everything rendered with CGI. Granted, it's murky water and darkness with a little cheating for lighting, but it looks good.

Director Williams Eubank maintains a heart-pounding sense of tension and menace, reinforced by a booming sound design that really gives your home theater subwoofer(s) something to work with. (Thus the dual when-to-see recommendations below.)

That said, all the surface excellence is in service of an overly familiar plot and tissue thin characters who barely rise above caricature due to the story's structure. The opening scene is Stewart brushing her teeth in a locker room while her narration refers to something someone told her that has no bearing on anything and we don't know who that person is/was to her. She rescues a Daddy Longlegs spider that's somehow down there and then BAM!!! the station implodes and we're off to the races.

I hadn't seen the trailer below before now and it's gives a misleading impression that we get to know the characters before the accident, like how we meet the crew of the Nostromo in Alien before they go down to the planet. In reality, the trailer clips together moments from the journey and our introductions. Because we're always on the move, there is no time to develop anyone minimally, much less adequately. With no connection to any of these people, when they get knocked off by monsters or misfortune, we don't care. The only question is whether the Big Movie Star On The Poster is going to survive or not?

It seems as if the movie may've originally been longer and got hacked down to a tight 90 minutes at the cost of all coherency. When we meet Stewart, she's wearing glasses, but they're damaged and she never wears them again and seems to suffer no ill effects. She repeatedly presses on her sternum as if in pain, but it's never explained why and never impacts anything. Cassel had a daughter who died young and seems confused about it, but that never matters.

In a couple of scenes, recorded announcements are heard explaining the locations as if tourists would be visiting, which makes no sense. An opening title gives the crew compliment as over 300 workers, but including dead bodies and the two killed in the opening, there are only 10 people in the entire movie, so why in the end were there so few survivors when all the pods were gone? There's an obligatory "Evil corporation meddling with nature unleashing unknown horrors" smack, but it's such a stock trope, it's meaningless. It's as if a deeper-than-needed story and characters may've existed, but were edited away to just the core action.

But these are all details that you notice after watching Underwater. During your viewing, you're too busy holding your breath to really notice how skeletal everything else is. If you've got a good sound system, are down for a quick-and-dirty heavy metal thriller, and wouldn't mind seeing K.Stew running around like this for a chunk of the movie because more clothes wouldn't fit under the suits...

...then Underwater is a taut, but shallow (considering the depth it's set) popcorn flick.

Score: 6/10. Rent it if you've got the sound system, otherwise catch it on cable.


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