Underwater (2020) Review
A SUSPENSEFUL, YET SHALLOW
AND FORGETTABLE THRILLER
What lurks within the ocean’s darkest depth? It’s question that’s been posed many times; adding a layer of mystery, intrigue, and a bit of fearfulness into what menacing sea creatures that dwell within the darkest depths of underwater realm. What’s even more scarier to imagine is actually venturing down into the murky and bleak water labyrinths and getting ensnared by one of its most fiercest sea predators or even encountering something unknown to man. Hollywood has certainly taken the notion to heart; carving out plenty of suspenseful (almost horror-like) features that display the unexpected thrills and nightmare-ish of what lies in the deep, including the more sci-fi / fantastical endeavors such as 1989’s The Abyss and 1998’s Sphere, the cheesy B-rated flicks like 2017’s 47 Meters Down and 2018’s The Meg, to shark infested predators like 1975’s Jaws and 1999’s Deep Blue Sea, and even monster creature features like 1989’s DeepStar Six and 1998’s Deep Rising. Now, 20th Century Fox and director William Eurbank present the latest offering of this deep-sea suspenseful thrillers with the movie Underwater. Does the film find its “scares” in the oceans depths or is it a flat-out boring endeavor?
In the depths of the Mariana Trench, a big-time drilling company is pushing their way into the undersea world, constructing several massive structures home to technicians and rig works, including Norah (Kristin Stewart), an electrical engineer. As everything seems to be a routine day, an earthquake strikes the site, with most of the underwater complex is crippled and coming apart, forcing Norah to scramble to safe and begin to search for survivors; eventually coming across Emily (Jessica Henwick), Liam (John Gallagher Jr.), Paul (T.J. Miller), and Captain Lucien (Vincent Cassel). With the site damaged beyond repair and with few options for survival, the team pulls on diving suits and tries to find their way to a livable area, aiming to go deeper with hopes to trigger some type of rescue to the world above. Unfortunately, while they struggle against stretches of wreckage, flooding, and conserving the oxygen reserves six miles below the surface of the ocean, something lurks in the depths as unknown creatures (unseeing by humanity) tracks the crew’s movement into their sojourn into the dark abyss.
THE GOOD / THE BAD
Ugh….I hate to think about that question that I posed in my opening paragraph. I know it sounds stupid, but I do have a fear of underwater sea creatures. Not like fish, crabs, of jellyfish or anything of that variety, but rather the deep “bottom of the sea” ones; beings that have that nightmare-ish look about them. Plus, predator like creatures like Sharks definitely give the creeps. So, the fear of being stranded in open water (whether on the ocean’s surface or deep below the surface) gives a shudder fear to just think about that, especially when encountering a creature from the sea. As I mentioned above, cinematic storytelling of this variety has certainly been numerous from a plethora of motion pictures; displaying survival / suspenseful thrillers of predators, creatures from the deep, and sci-fi aliens. I wouldn’t say that these are my particular favorite type of films (again, a fear of being attacked in open water), but…from a movie critic…I still say that 1975’s Jaws was pretty damn good in this category.
This, of course, brings me back around to talking about Underwater, a 2020 suspense thriller / horror endeavor from this stock of underwater sea terrors. This particular film was pretty much unknown to me for quite some time as I really didn’t hear much about until I saw the movie trailer for the feature when I saw 2019’s Charlie Angels (probably because Kristen Stewart starred in both projects). At first glance, I wasn’t really that much impressed with this movie. Yes, it surely had plenty of suspenseful moments that were showcased in the trailer, but it wasn’t something that completely enticed me to say “Wow….I have to go see this when it comes out”. After that, I saw the trailer a few more times when I went out for my weekly movie outing and my initial thoughts on Underwater were the same. So, when the film finally came out, I decided to check out the movie when I did a “double feature” viewing (this movie and Like a Boss), with my expectations set a little low. I decided to complete a few other 2020 movie reviews before I decided to write one up for Underwater. Now, I finally have the time to share my opinion on the movie. And what were they? Well, both good and bad. Despite the movie having some decent suspense thrills along the way, Underwater is just a shallow and generic movie that forgoes a potentially claustrophobic thriller for flat acting and cheap “jump scares” tactic. As one reviewer (Society Reviews) that I follow says: “It’s Dead Space but underwater and not as good”. And that sums it up perfectly!
Underwater is directed by William Eurbank, whose previous directorial works includes such projects like Love and The Signal. Given his background of those two movies, Eurbank makes Underwater his most ambitious “Hollywood-ish” endeavor and certainly succeeds on that front; crafting (and shaping) the motion picture with a sense of suspense and almost horror-like elements into the feature’s narration and cinematic undertaking. To be sure, the movie does have its fair share of problems, but where the movie does excel at is in tense and suspenseful moments that Eurbank stages throughout the feature. Yes, some are a bit cliché and bit ridiculous (with a sense of redundancy on occasion), but Eurbank plays to the cheesy playfulness of a suspense thriller and weaves the horror classic nuances of “creature features” into Underwater; allowing the submerged movie world a cinematic playground have a sort of frenzy and sometimes claustrophobic atmosphere. Additionally, Eurbank keeps the movie steadily moving at a solid pace by keeping the narrative briskly moving from one beat to the next. Thus, with a runtime of 95 minutes, Underwater does movie nicely along from start to finish, without any unnecessary side stories.
On a technical achievement (of which where the movie does shine a bit), Underwater is a solid undertaking; creating an undersea world that’s both frightening as well as majestic at the same time. Naturally, the film’s setting is set primarily in the dark reaches of the Mariana Trench; creating an almost alien undersea world of where the movie’s main character traverse across. All of this is rendered in a good way, though it does get a bit confusing a few times (more on that below). Suffice to say that the film’s background setting does feel appropriate for the feature’ story. In addition, the visual design (and conceptual designs) of all the underground stations and equipment (i.e. gear, suits, weapons, etc.) all look quite impressive….in a sort of sci-fi take. Given his background cinematography, Eurbank certainly plays around with this underwater world; a mixture of science fiction future tech and creature feature (that good look kind of neat in the movie). Thus, the film’s “behind the scenes” team, including Naaman Marshall (production designs), Karen Frick (set decorations), Bojan Bazelli (cinematography) and the entire art direction team should be commended for the work. Lastly, the film’s score, which was composed by Marco Beltrami and Brandon Roberts, deliver a respectable musical composition to Underwater; utilizing the film’s suspenseful nature to help elevate the sequences tense-filled moments.
Unfortunately, Underwater is quite the “gripping” suspense thriller that it wants to be; struggling to find a narrative, which is problematic from the get-go and marred by not just underwater sea creatures, but by lazy predictably. What do I mean? Well, the movie is your standard / straightforward thriller that, while staging some good suspenseful / tense moments throughout the film, never quite stands out from the generic platform that it muddles around in. In truth, despite its very simplistic plot, the movie tries to be more than that and ends up convoluting its own narrative, with plenty of mystery and plot fragments that are left unanswered by the end credits. In doing this, Eurbank’s feature gets reduced to a bland and often generic flavor that does little to spark imagination or even entertainment in its plot; resulting in a careless and mundane cinematic story that can’t carry its own weight. This, of course, goes back to the script for Underwater, which was penned by Brian Duffield and Adam Cozad, makes for a generic story progression that’s quite formulaic to the touch. Of course, given the story’s nature of survival, it’s quite clear where Underwater’s narrative is gonna go and, while it maybe a bit of cheesy “B-rated” creature feature fun for some, what’s presented its that really good and wholesome; becoming increasingly problematic as the movie advances. In my opinion, nothing about Underwater doesn’t seem remarkable or stands upon its own merits as this type of storytelling has been done and redone in similar and better projects. Thus, Underwater is predictable in nature and just comes off as quite generic to the touch with nothing really standing out…. plain and simple.
Even the framework of the feature’s story seems a bit wonky, with the script trying to setup a potential sequel installment and adding some mystery behind the underwater creatures and the conspiracy of the drilling company. Again, it’s trying to a sense of scale to Underwater’s narration, but it just comes up as half-baked ideas, with the potential for a half-baked sequel planning. Hope this idea doesn’t materialize as Underwater, despite its many flaws, works best as a sort of “one and done” endeavor and not as a franchise starter concoction.
Additionally, the film’s scares are a bit “tedious” at best; displaying some cheap “jump” scares throughout the feature. Of course, some of them scare tactics do work in the narrative, but most of them are just the “same old, same old” in today’s horror standards. Speaking of which, the visual designs of the undersea creatures that terrorize Norah and company throughout the movie are good, but the overall murkiness that Eurbank paints in the underwater world (where the movie’s setting takes place) is quite bland. Of course, this is part of the feature’s tactics of trying to project the dark depths of the seas to be a dark, dank, and dismal place, but it sort of backfires and ends up “masking” what’s on-screen for quite a lot of the feature’s runtime. Also, Eurbank, along with the film’ script, decides to make the movie more suspenseful (almost like a thrill ride), which (again) ends up backfiring on them by sacrificing character development (more on that below), which renders a lot of the character drama a moot point right from the get-go. Also, let’s not forget that the film’s script tries to attempt to make the movie have comedic levity, which feels quite forced anytime it presents itself….even if it’s trying to be cheeky within its “B-rated” cheese premise.
The cast in Underwater is kept quite small, which does sound good on paper, but fails to leave an impression mark on their respective characters. Of course, a survival movie doesn’t really have much time for “character growth”, but even what’s presented in the movie fails to us (the viewers) to even remotely care about these individuals and their journey that they undertake in the movie. Some of it does tend to be on the actors’ side (creating bland performances), but majority stems from the film’s script, which gives very little to no depth to these characters. Headlining the movie is actress Kristen Stewart, who plays the role of central protagonist Norah Price. Stewart, known for her roles in The Twilight saga features as well as Charlie’s Angels and Still Alice, has been getting the most work of her Twilight cast and has certainly been making a name for herself in Hollywood features, despite the fact that her acting talents can be a “iffy” at times. Looking beyond that, Stewart does make for a compelling character in Norah, which is taking an incredibly dangerous situation out of a seemingly ordinary-ish person in a sort of “everyman” (or more appropriately “everywoman) persona. So, she gets the character down in that regard. However, the character is pretty much paper thin and really doesn’t have much to offer. Even Stewart seems to struggle (at various points) in understanding Norah. There are some character background elements that are mentioned about her, but those are sparse and left dangling by the time the film reaches its end. Sure, I do understand that the movie is about the “journey” (i.e. in the moment) and not so much about character building backstory, but it’s kind of hard to get behind a character (and root for them) if you know very little about them. This tactic has worked before in similar survival films, but not so much in Underwater. Thus, Stewart’s Norah in the movie is simply there; going along with everything and acting and reacting to the film’s events….and nothing more.
Behind Stewart, actor Vincent Cassel is probably the most recognizable as the “seasoned / veteran” acting talent on the project by playing the character of Captain Lucien. While there isn’t much to the character beyond his initial setup as the somewhat “seasoned leader” of the group, but Cassel, known for his roles in Ocean’s 12, Elizabeth, and Jason Bourne, certainly pulls it off with enough grit and gravitas to make the character of Captain Lucien stand out as the most memorable one of the entire cast. If Cassel’s Captain Lucien fares the best in the movie, then actor T.J. Miller fares the worst in the movie as character Paul Abel. Miller, known for his roles in Deadpool, She’s Out of Your League, and Office Christmas Party, has always been the so-called “comic” relief in feature films; offering up levity in certain situations and has such being labelled as that particular character stereotype in his roles. However, the problem with that doesn’t translate well in Underwater, with Miller’s Paul being a goofy character that doesn’t quite fit the “mold” of a suspense thriller and pretty much sticks out as a sore thumb for his part in the feature’s narrative. I like Miller and do laugh at his performance in other movies, but his character of Paul in Underwater is tonally wrong, unneeded humor, and just downright miscast in this deep-sea suspense thriller; leaving a lot of the film’s jokes forced and shoehorned unnecessarily in (as mentioned above).
The rest of the cast, including actor John Gallagher Jr. (The Newsroom and 10 Cloverfield Lane) as Liam Smith, actress Jessica Henwick (Game of Thrones and Iron Fist) as Emily Haversham, and actor Mamoudou Athie (The Circle and The Get Down) as Rodrigo Nagenda, make up the rest of both the main / supporting cast (again, the cast in the film is relatively small). While these acting talents are fine in their respective past works, their involvement in Underwater feels cheap and uninteresting. Sure, they all can act, but it feels quite like their talents are being wasted on this project, with most (as expected) to be a somewhat of the classic “cannon fodder” variety….and you know how that plays out. Plus, all these characters are pretty much the stereotypical clichés of sorts, which comes off as paper thin characters to a shallow motion picture thriller.
What lurks in the deep….is the main fundamental question asked by Norah and her surviving crew members face as they make their way to safety (seven miles below the sea level) in the movie Underwater. Director William Eurbank’s latest film takes the suspense thriller route and channels that cinematic storytelling to the deepest part of the undersea world; mixing in thrill and horror-like moments to make the film’s narrative “pop”. Unfortunately, despite a good visual / atmospheric environment and a few suspenseful moments (staging and execution), majority of the film is rendered in a generic state with a bland story, a formulaic predictability, lazy writing, uninteresting characters, and a waste of acting talents. Personally, I didn’t particularly care for this movie, but it had its moments. Even though my expectations were low and some of the suspenseful sequences did grip me a bit, the movie is just a “meh” type of endeavor that has little to offer beyond a few “jump scares”. However, I can see why some people might like this movie, but I couldn’t see it. That being said, my recommendation for this movie is both an “iffy choice” as well as “skip it” as it just depends on your taste for suspense cinematic flavor. I just couldn’t see it and choose the latter choice rather than the former. In the end, whether you love the movie or not, Underwater is a shallow (and quite generic) attempt of a suspense thriller that will mostly be forgotten in the 2020 releases. It’s an admirable attempt that just doesn’t “rise” to the occasion.
2.4 Out of 5 (Iffy Choice / Skip it)
Released On: January 10th, 2020
Reviewed On: January 27th, 2020
Underwater is 95 minutes long and is rated PG-13 for sci-fi action and terror, and brief strong language