In reviewing, it’s a cliché to cite other films and say a movie is something like “Alien meets The Abyss” or “Gravity on speed.” It’s also not entirely fair to cite better films, insofar as if you go into a theater expecting the next 2001, you’ll always be disappointed.
That said, in the case of Underwater, setting aside the elements that strongly evoke far superior movies would leave essentially nothing to write about, since director William Eubank and writers Brian Duffield and Adam Cozad fail to bring anything notably original to the screen. So, by way of review, here’s a non-comprehensive list of movies Underwater is similar to but worse than.
If you’re going to hear one thing about Underwater, it’s “Alien in the ocean.” Of course you will, because it’s about a similarly scrappy group of schmos — including an unsmiling and grimy yet high-cheekboned and beautiful woman with a practical haircut who doesn’t officially lead the crew but becomes their tough-minded hero — working in an extractive industry for a faceless corporation in a high-tech vessel in pitiless conditions when they meet big black greasy monsters with multiple rows of teeth that just want to kill them all and eat them. So, fair.
The frenetic pace of Underwater, though, leaves no time for the kind of quiet world-building that makes the Nostromo feel so real. There’s also nothing remotely as creepy or creative as the face-hugger or the chest-burster, and no fascinating plot twists. The characters are also, to a one, far less distinctive. So, Alien is better. Way better.
30 years ago, James Cameron sent a crew into the depths, where they encountered a mysterious life form. The innovative CGI is the reason The Abyss comes up most often today, but it’s also a well-considered and effective undersea SF thriller. It’s worth watching, much more so than Underwater.
Norah Price (Kristen Stewart) and her mates don’t just get to stay in one place to fight the creepies: they have to make their way through a succession of underwater stations and vehicles to reach their mining installation’s last functional escape pods — each sea-suit helmet popping open and shut like the lid on an AirPods case. In that, their journey resembles the odyssey of Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) in Gravity.
Underwater aims for the mix of harrowing suspense and breathtaking vistas that marked Alfonso Cuarón’s 2013 masterpiece, but the new film loses focus in an under-established environment. Its most intriguing questions are those it never deigns to answer; most of all, why is everything leaking like a tin shack in a rainstorm? At the bottom of the Mariana Trench, the water pressure is such that the tiniest of breaches would create a stream of water shooting at such velocity that it could cut your hand off. Gravity, with its highly specific depiction of a hostile environment, would have thought of that.
Mad Max: Fury Road
The filmmakers’ assumed reason for scarcely establishing setting or relationships is that pace was the priority. Something goes very wrong in the first minutes of Underwater, and from that point the movie’s essentially a race to escape. Eubank, who made a Sundance sci-fi splash with The Signal (2014), seems to have been trying to create a sense of desperate claustrophobia, but evinces so little curiosity about these characters or their conditions that the movie largely boils down to hyperventilating close-ups and jump scares.
Watch the opening sequence of George Miller’s latest Mad Max movie to see a frantic pace in a fantastic setting done right. Faced with introducing audiences to a new actor in an iconic role, Miller creates a jaw-dropping series of unforgettable images that leave no doubt Max is still mad.
2001: A Space Odyssey
Beyond the fact that Underwater model Alien is one of the few exceptions to the Kubrick rule that showing the alien is always a bad idea, 2001 was the first science fiction film to use the sound of filtered breathing to pull audiences inside a space suit. The generic sea suits in Underwater, which resemble the toys left strewn about the miners’ imploding station, have nothing on the 2001 suits with their bold colors carefully calibrated to stand out against the white of the Discovery interior and against the black of space.
When Stewart finally gets out of her sea-suit, running through an endless series of dripping hallways in tiny, supposedly practical sea-briefs and sea-bra (somehow, the film manages to make the only audible comment about her rock-hard physique an insult), there’s no sense of vulnerability as in Sigourney Weaver’s final fight with the Xenomorph. Stewart just looks like she wants to get the Underwater anti-climax over with, and we understand why.
Once Underwater settles into its tedious trench, your mind is apt to go skipping over the entire Kristen Stewart filmography, possibly reaching as far back as her 2002 breakout, David Fincher’s nail-biting thriller about a mother (Jodie Foster) and daughter (Stewart) pursued by intruders. Do you remember who played those intruders? Forest Whitaker, Jared Leto, and…Dwight Yoakam! Compared to that effective, original movie, Underwater is a thousand miles from nowhere.