It isn’t what I expected to say in this Underwater review, but this Kristen Stewart led movie is not a bad entry at all. It’s an effective piece of tension that starts fast and doesn’t let up. Does it have its flaws? Sure. But for a January release that has been hanging around in development for a couple of years (Disney buying Fox), Underwater is entertaining and very claustrophobic.
Setting Up Underwater
As the story begins, a quick montage of newspaper headlines sets up the world we are about to dive into. We’re going to the Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean, the deepest trench in the world. The sense of claustrophobia begins right then and there.
Kristen Stewart opens Underwater with a little bit of narration, leading one to believe that perhaps this will follow her throughout the movie. Thankfully it doesn’t. It is effective in setting the mood at the bottom of the trench, how time can lose its meaning, how there is no light so far under the surface. You can almost feel the weight and pressure of her existence. Stewart plays Norah and when we first see her (with her blonde, military-like hair) she is brushing her teeth while contemplating her surroundings. From there, things move quickly.
As told in the opening montage, Tian Industries has set up camp at the bottom of the Mariana Trench with the intention of drilling for resources. Their base is massive, making one wonder just how they were able to build these structures 7 miles under the ocean surface. But that is only a minor thought as things go to hell very quickly.
As the hull of the massive rig begins to implode around Stewart thanks to an underwater earthquake, she bolts for safety, coming across Mamoudou Athie first. Again, the sense of claustrophobia is all around. They find themselves on the run as the base continues to buckle in all around them. They eventually, and quickly, find the very reliable Vincent Cassel, Jessica Henwick, John Gallagher Jr., Gunner Wright, and T.J. Miller. It was at this point that Aliens came to mind. T.J. Miller began firing off his one-liners and Bill Paxton’s Private Hudson seemed to be reincarnated. Not completely off-putting but, in some ways, it felt a little forced.
Underwater director William Eubank continues his relentless pursuit of dread and tight spaces when the seven figure out the only way to survive is by jumping into pressurized underwater suits and walking on the bottom of the ocean to another station. This is where Eubank’s story takes a turn and we go from disaster flick to monster movie. As they walk through tunnels in an attempt to get to the station and possible escape pods, they find out they are not alone.
Floated By Kristen Stewart
Who survives and who doesn’t, well that is the fun Underwater. I found myself rooting for specific individuals to get through the tunnels, make that walk and find those escape pods ready and willing to take them to the surface. If I was to get nit-picky with certain aspects of the movie, it would probably be the floor of the ocean scenes. Underwater uses the immense talents of cinematographer Bojan Bazelli (The Ring, A Cure For Wellness) but the murkiness of these scenes didn’t do the movie any favors. It was tough to see what the survivors were working with and fighting against on their walk.
Stewart’s performance is one of the bright lights in Underwater. It’s restrained and impressive. She holds the movie together, never giving too much or too little. It’s an even performance that fits perfectly within the movie.
The dread and weight of the movie are consistently palpable. If like me, you find tight spaces not to be in your wheelhouse, then this movie will make you squirm. Underwater’s characters are developed just enough to make you care. Cassel brings a sense of leadership (he is the Captain) as he stays positive and pulls for everyone to make it, to survive.
What didn’t work? The aforementioned murkiness. Underwater is a visual strain especially in the most critical spots where you don’t want it to be. The things you want to see go by too fast. Whether by design or not, it’s frustrating. The movie’s bookend narration felt out of place, especially on the backend. The story here too, is uncomfortably familiar, though it’s carried by Underwater’s relentless pace
January is typically known as Hollywood’s dumping ground. Studios use January to roll out movies they feel aren’t ready for the prime time of a summer release. In any other month maybe you want more, but for this month, it’s a solid entry. Underwater is tense, fun, and terrifyingly claustrophobic.