Underwater comes from a long, proud tradition of low budget monster movies whose creatures are obscured or outright hidden by the dark. But it works, boy howdy, does it work. It knows what it is and never tries to be anything else.
William Eubank with his writers Brian Duffield and Adam Cozad, waste no time and plunge us headfirst into the murky depths of the Mariana Trench. A bare-bones monster movie, it’s the type where the characters have names but it doesn’t really matter. The names exist solely so the characters aren’t called “1st to Die”, “Kristen Stewart”, and “Comic Relief”.
None of this is a knock on the film merely a statement of fact in regards to what type of film Underwater is.
Eubank does a splendid job in giving us almost nothing in terms of character, exposition, or even story and somehow has made an effective thriller which feeds on the basic human unease of things that go bump in the dark. From the get-go, the production design tells us everything we need to know about the deep sea drilling base, the company, and the people inhabiting it. The hallways are grimy, the design muted and intentionally drab.
The Keppler Station is designed for function and little else. Even the lights flicker because the company doesn’t seem to really care that much about its crew. In turn, this informs the audience about what type of people would take a job for a company like this.
Kristen Stewart is a mechanic. T.J. Miller is…also a mechanic? I don’t remember. But Jessica Henwick is a computer engineer along with John Gallagher Jr., her boyfriend. Mamoudou Athie is, sadly predictable, the first to die. The great stone-faced Vincent Cassel is the captain who must lead the rest to safety.
I’d mention the character names but to be honest they don’t much matter. I called the script bare bones and I meant it. Underwater starts out with Stewart brushing her teeth and then the earthquake hits; cue the rest of the movie.
But Eubank and his team do such a good job shrouding us in the dark not to keep us guessing, but to keep us confused. Confusion is an aspect of horror and since we don’t know what’s going on, much like the characters on screen, a strange sense of connection begins to form.
Throw in claustrophobia and Lovecraftian eldritch monsters of the deep who hunger for human flesh and we’re off to the races. Eubank works with his cameraman, Bojan Bazelli, to create the illusion and imminent danger of drowning. The camera sits up close to the diving helmets as our heroes march across the bottoms of the ocean in a mad scurry to escape whatever seems to be lurking just outside the edges of the light.
To Bazelli and Eubank’s credit, there are more than a few scenes of Stewart in her underwear, and I never felt as if they were leering at her. For a monster movie written and directed by men, it refreshingly never objectifies its heroines. The deaths aren’t cruel either, though they are sudden and gleefully gory.
Eubank is given great help from his actors. The script is a cocktail napkin with certain moments in the film connected by arrows to give the production team some idea of the chronological order. Lesser actors would milk what little material there is too much. But the assembled cast is a bevy of character actors who excel at getting the most from precious little.
Granted when you have one of the finest actress working today as your lead, Stewart, it’s almost cheating. Stewart spends much of the film alone and never once allows our attention to waver. She’s a mechanic, and thus can actually fix and build things. Say what you want about the script but they made sure her character is a mechanic as opposed to merely making her a mechanic.
Henwick’s character vacillates between fear for her own life and her boyfriend’s. Poor Gallagher spends most of the film concussed, fainting from lack of oxygen, or being dragged around by his girlfriend. Seeing the girlfriend be the one who has to drag the useless boyfriend around while trying to escape the horrors of the deep is another of the little twist of usual tropes that kept me smiling like an idiot. Granted when Henwick and Stewart are together we begin to feel that possibly Henwick’s character could do better.
Most of Underwater consists of the characters splitting up, trying to figure out how to pass one blocked path or another, and regrouping after someone dies-or almost dies. Who are these people? Why is this happening? None of that matters, only getting out of the current situation does. Survival is the point; not character or story arcs.
So much of what is made anymore seems to want to be seen as prestige or “serious” that even the silly stuff wants to be heralded as such. Underwater is a deep-sea monster movie, no more, no less. But the camera work does much to make it more visceral than most films of its genre, and it’s actors keep us tethered in the moment. In other words, Eubank has made a fun, effective, b-budget monster movie without pretension or airs. How awesome is that?