Disclaimer: I refuse to use terms like ‘b-movie’ or ‘exploitation’ like many critics usually patronisingly use them when they want to recognise a genre film so unabashedly entertaining that it almost feels wrong for them to appreciate it. No, I use these terms with the endearment they deserve, because in my mind there is no purest form of cinema but than an almost animalistic urge to capture our attention. It’s how cinema started, and it’s what will keep cinema alive. Preconceived concepts of quality be damned, it’s all about passion.
Underwater is all this in spades. So recognisable I can describe it simply as ‘Alien at the bottom of the ocean’, and so simple I was impressed how it still went out of its way to cut down on the little padding it had. This film doesn’t really start as much as it slams itself unto its audience with the subtlety of a bowling ball to the face. It’s three minutes in, we don’t even know the name of our hero and barely registered the setting, there’s an earthquake, some people died, two others lived. I guess we’re in a film now.
But back to the basics. Underwater follows a group of scientists trying to escape an underwater research facility in the bottom of the ocean that it’s mysteriously collapsing around them. Norah (Kristen Stewart), the mechanical engineer, manages to make it out to a safer area with Rodrigo (Mamadou Athie) and join the rest of the surviving crew, including Emily (Jessica Henwick), the biologist; Lucien (Vincent Cassel), the captain; and Paul (T.J. Miller), the comic relief. Frankly all of this matters little. The writing team of Brian Duffield and Adam Cozad identify these characters with enough traits make them relatable and tenuously connected to a theme of loss and survival. They are more interested in getting it down to the nitty-gritty of their struggle, because in real life they wouldn’t take their time to get to know each other, they would just make do.
And yet they do look and feel and fleshed out characters that we just don’t get to know very well, mostly credit of the solid work of the cast, especially Stewart and Cassell that approach this project with thoughtfullness.
Not all works. The good intentions of everyone involved is undermined by little rays of lack of talent, especially from William Eubank, a passionate and talented director that here shows the cracks of both the lack of budget and his ability to compromise to a project with genuine aspirations. The action is often frantic and confusing, but not claustrophobic enough to be uncomfortable. The scares are few and not effective, and the monster deserved an iconic moment. For a film that takes so much out of Alien, there’s more from Ridley Scott that Eubank could’ve learned from.
That is until the third act hits and Eubank shows all his visual might with grandiose Lovecraftian insanity. It quickly ties down the thematic before getting down to a brave decision to reposition Underwater in a frame I was not expecting, but welcomed nevertheless.
The aforementioned themes of the film are treated lightly, like only a solid shlock movie would. I respect the clarity of its message and the conscious decision to keep the depth to a minimum. Ironic for a film called Underwater, but whatever it takes to make the bloody thing work.
Give Stewart every big budget movie she wants, she can do it all. An effective flawed script leads to a memorable third act. I’ll watch more of this fi they keep making them.
Eubank was so excited to get to the end, he forgot how important the rest of the build-up was. I have to be honest, there’s a classic in the making here that is undermined by just a little lack of vision. It could’ve been scarier. It could’ve been more layered. It could’ve done so much more. Instead it’s just a solid piece of shlock, and that’s the right antidote to the drabness of the award season.