Underwater (2020)

JANUARY 9, 2020


If you've seen the trailer for Underwater, you'd probably remember the shots of Kristen Stewart - an employee on a big drilling platform/laboratory at the bottom of the ocean floor - noticing some water leaking from the ceiling before all the walls around her burst open and begin flooding the joint. Anyone who has ever seen a disaster film before would reasonably assume this is something that happens twenty minutes into the movie at earliest, maybe even more - but that's actually the first scene of the film, before we've even met anyone besides KStew's Norah, an engineer who is one of only six people we see in the film (save for two unlucky anonymous sods that try to run to safety and fail). Within moments, the filmmakers establish the very thing that makes the movie work: they're not going to waste much time on the things that ultimately won't matter.

A lot of reviews have compared the movie to Alien, and that's fine (if overblown; the two aren't really much alike beyond "some people are confined with a monster"), but there's actually a number of other underwater-set films in the same vein, such as Leviathan and Deepstar Six (plus another where you're supposed to assume the folks are in space but are in fact underwater, though saying the title would spoil that fun twist), and I think this tops the others*, mostly because it has the good sense to get moving fast and barely let up after. Those others took forever to get going and rarely delivered on the spectacle their one-line synopsis would suggest (Leviathan in particular seemed to favor off-screen deaths), but that's never much of an issue here. It almost seems to take place in real time as the characters navigate their way from their damaged section of the facility to another one (which requires two exterior walks along the ocean floor) that might have escape pods they can use to survive, and there's scarcely a dull or quiet moment until the credits roll.

If anything it perhaps swings too far in the opposite direction at times, as you really need to pay attention and keep your ears tuned if you want to catch all the exposition and character details that the film often races through. Most of the explanation for what Stewart and the others are doing down there is shown via news clippings during the opening credits (which are very Godzilla '14-inspired), including the fact that the movie is set in the future (2050, I believe I read), and it's not entirely clear what certain characters' jobs are - TJ Miller is the comic relief, but I highly doubt he was hired by the drilling company to be that, though if they say what he does on a normal day I missed it. The trailer shows a couple of quick "normal day at the office" shots of a few characters that aren't in the movie, so it's possible there WAS more of a traditional setup that got excised, though it's just as likely they had some B-roll of the actors and included the footage in the spot to just trick us. Either way, it's an interesting tactic to let their present situation inform us who they are and how they work together, and it mostly pays off, but it can feel a bit mercenary at times.

Speaking of Miller... eh. He's the "and" role and you can draw your own conclusions from that regarding how much he's in the film, but I was getting tired of his one-note performances/appearances before he even got "canceled" (the movie was shot in 2017, and had been tossed around on the schedule due to the Fox/Disney merger, though I'm sure Miller's presence hasn't helped). A couple of his lines are funny enough, but I don't think he says anything that's not meant to make the audience chuckle, so it's just tiresome. Everyone else contributes something meaningful, and I was relieved to discover that none of them were evil/cynical humans in the vein of Aliens' Paul Reiser (or Meg Foster, to stick with the Leviathan comparisons), and even though some of them didn't even really know each other (Norah actually has to introduce herself to the first survivor she meets) they all work together and have each others' backs. It's quite refreshing, really - I can't even remember the last time I saw Vincent Cassel playing a normal, caring guy.

Also, they do that thing that Quiet Place did, where a character kind of has to act dumb early on in order to sell the gravity of the situation to the audience. Here it's a guy seemingly knowing he had a faulty diving helmet before being submerged, which gets him imploded almost instantly (which, with the fact that the movie itself doesn't take much time to get to the action, means it's only about ten minutes in) and very clearly proves to the audience that even though there might be monsters out there, they're far from the only thing they need to worry about. Most underwater movies take the time to explain the dangers of water pressure, surfacing too fast, etc - but rarely show the effects, and it can be hard to wrap your head around if you aren't personally familiar with the risks of such things. But when you see a guy explode all over his coworkers because of a tiny crack in his helmet, you know exactly how dangerous their predicament is, monsters or not.

But there are indeed some monsters, and they're kind of great? I don't expect much from our modern creature features, as most tend to be vaguely tentacle/thorn-ridden shapeless blobs of CGI that I couldn't describe to someone later or even recognize if I saw a drawing or model kit without context (the Cloverfield monster is an excellent example of this sort of thing). But these are well designed and appropriately scary, with the ability to unhinge their algae-like jaws and swallow someone whole like a snake. They're used sparingly, but as the film goes on you see more and more of them, leading to a terrific final reveal that legitimately stunned me; not a "twist", just something I wasn't expecting the film to include. And keeping with the seeming commitment to trimming the fat, there's thankfully no explanation for what they are, how they survive, etc - we know they came up from the drilling, and that's all we need to know.

(Skip this paragraph if you don't want some mild spoilers!)

There's also a third scary idea: the bends, or decompression sickness. One character suffers a mild case of it and gets a bit loopy for the rest of their screentime, but they occasionally almost seem to be trying to get you thinking that Stewart (who is quite good) might be the actual killer, not the monsters. There's a scene where she gets separated from the others and starts having quick flashes to earlier moments, and we see her hands shaking every now and then - i.e. standard "they're going crazy" kind of movie cliches, and that's followed by a scene where she finds one of the others and the person almost seems terrified of her. Turns out the other person was just confused and having trouble seeing in the water, and to be honest I'm glad it didn't go that route, but I wouldn't doubt that there was some inkling of that idea in early development. As it stands, it's a nice bit of misdirect, not to mention an extra obstacle for the characters to overcome.

Basically, as "January horror movies" go, it's one of the best, and by that I mean it didn't deserve to be dumped off as one. It's bad enough the studios so rarely greenlight original creature features like this (let alone at hefty budgets), it's worse when they basically ensure that they flop by tossing them out with little fanfare. There's almost no chance that the movie becomes a box office success, and while that doesn't mean a goddamn thing to you or me re: our enjoyment of this film, it does mean that the next dozen or so original monster movies that get pitched to a major studio will almost certainly be rejected, as if it's the audience's fault that they didn't go see a movie with a bad release date and next to no marketing. At its best, the movie is able to rely on that same thing that The Descent did, in that it's almost scary enough without the monsters, and at 95 minutes, even if they DID trim some of the talkier stuff, they didn't do so much that it feels completely compromised like an old school Dimension flick. Nope, for the most part it feels just right, and I walked out having enjoyed myself. Plus I thought of Armageddon at one point, which is always a plus in my house.

What say you?

*Not The Abyss, which is often lumped in with the others despite being a straight sci-fi/adventure film; the creatures are not scary in any way so I don't see it as part of the group, really.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the explanation on all the things this film has going for it and against it..I thought it was terrific..By the way in Forbes Mag and in an interview with William Eubanks the budget of this film is only 60 million not 80..as all are believing and that's thanks to thee tax credits of filming in New Orleans..


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