Fear of the unknown is the driving force behind deep space sci-fi horror like Ridley Scott’s ’79 classic, Alien, and deep sea aquatic horror such as James Cameron’s The Abyss and George P. Cosmatos’ Leviathan, both released in ’89. With so much mystery surrounding such far reaches shrouded in darkness, they are perfect settings for creature feature imaginations to run wild unleashing malicious beasts of death and destruction. Director William Eubank (The Signal: 2014, Laurence Fishburne, Lin Shaye) takes cues from all of these influential films for his latest adrenaline fueled release, Underwater.
Stepping away from her tween saga persona, Twilight actress Kristen Stewart stars as an electrical engineer named Norah operating on a drill site located in the Mariana Trench more than 6 miles below the ocean’s surface. Opening with a narrative describing the strenuous psychological toll of living and working at the ocean’s deepest depths for months, the facility is rocked by an unknown force. This opening scene screams “nightmare sequence.” However, no one predictably startles awake and this is no dream segment cliche. No time is wasted diving straight into exhilarating action from one anxiety-inducing moment to the next.
Surrounded by exploding pipes and rushing water, Stewart embraces her inner Ellen Ripley as Norah runs for safety and immediately makes the first of several tough calls to come. Joined by surviving crew members Emily (Jessica Henwick: Game of Thrones series), Smith (John Gallagher Jr.: 10 Cloverfield Lane), Paul (T.J. Miller: Deadpool), Rodrigo (Mamoudou Athie: The Circle) and their captain portrayed by Vincent Cassel (Black Swan), the team considers their limited options for survival. Hundreds of researchers and crew members are now dead, air supply is running low and the massive drilling facility is completely devastated rendering most resources inoperable. Their only hope is to reach an older facility that just may contain functioning escape pods. The catch? They are forced to make their way down the mining construct and across a mile of ocean floor. And they soon discover that they’re not alone in this watery hell.
Although Eubank’s commendable efforts manage to capture elements from aforementioned classics above, the cinematographer turned director falls incredibly short of creating something so timeless. Years from now, people will not be looking back on sci-fi horror from 2020 and think of Underwater. Eubank is no future Ridley Scott and, though she gives a better performance than expected, Stewart is no Sigourney Weaver. And, while he adds just the right amount of light-hearted chuckles, T.J. Miller’s performance is far from Bill Paxton’s devil may care comedy relief as Private Hudson in James Cameron’s followup in the Alien franchise.
Failing in its obvious attempts to emulate certain sci-fi horror classics, however, does not make this film a sinking disaster. It merely places it in the ever-entertaining B-movie category of creature features. Following the gambit of Matt Reeves’ Cloverfield from 2008, suspense is built as the survivors escape one life threatening catastrophe after another while the stalking monsters stay just out of sight for nearly half the film’s runtime. However, in this tale of wreckage and carnage, we actually get to see the malevolent beasts leading up to one reveal that will leave H.P. Lovecraft fans raving.
Though it certainly won’t be up for any awards any time this century, Eubank’s attempt carries a certain B-horror charm with a Hollywood level cast and production. Driven by fast paced nail-biting suspense, Underwater is a claustrophobic roller-coaster ride that will have you holding your breath from beginning to end.