★★ / ★★★★
Following the destruction of a massive underwater drill station, the remaining survivors (Vincent Cassel, Mamoudou Athie, T.J. Miller, John Gallagher Jr., Jessica Henwick) decide that their only hope for survival is to walk across the seafloor for about a mile and reach an abandoned station where escape pods can be employed to transport them to the surface. The goal is clear and the premise is straightforward, so it is no surprise that “Underwater” is able to capture the viewers’ attention right from the get-go. It proves to be another challenge, however, to keep our attention. It is most disappointing that the picture ends up adopting the usual tricks of modern horror movies in order to generate reaction: shaking the camera, obfuscating the action, turning the audio way up. It suffers from diminishing returns.
The funny thing is, an argument can be made that the elements cited above need not be utilized at all. There is already something inherently creepy about living and working in an underwater facility where is no day and night cycle. Hallways tend to look the same. At times the only thing that can be heard are the beeping of machines. When the movie plays it quiet, it is when its star, Kristen Stewart, who plays Norah the mechanical engineer, shines like a candle in the dark. It is without question that she shines in introspective roles. When we meet Norah, the sadness about her is almost palpable—despite an off-putting narration. Stewart’s approach is to play a dramatic character in a disaster movie that just so happens to be a monster flick, too. It could have been a killer amalgamation.
But the screenplay by Brian Duffield and Adam Cozard is only somewhat interested in our heroine’s inner turmoil. And so little connection, if any, is established between Norah and the dismantling of the drilling facility as well as Norah and the ancient, eye-less deep sea monsters with terrifying teeth and mini-talons along their tentacles. As expected in disaster flicks, the survivors perish one by one—dry, formulaic, tiresome. It also embraces a cliché that I find to be most intolerable: attempting to drag a useless, emotionally fragile character to the finish line. Nobody wants to watch a weakling take up space, especially when everyone around this character so desperately wishes to survive the ordeal.
Showing the station falling apart from the outside does not look impressive. Structures falling on top of one another, for example, appears to be made by a cheap computer program. Perhaps it is due to the presence of underwater debris; it is so thick that we are required to squint in order to appreciate finer details. Meanwhile, the monsters are hit-or-miss. There is a marginally effective sequence in which a creature is placed on a table and one of the survivors attempts to examine it. At one point, she actually touches it with her bare hands. But when these creatures are shown underwater, feelings of dread and horror are lessened. Maybe it is because the filmmakers decide to show them far too often to the point where mystery is no longer present.
There is a simplicity and a directness to the film that can be appreciated. But the longer one observes and peels through the layers, it becomes glaringly obvious there isn’t much there. Even its awkward attempts at humor is wan; there is not one memorable line. When the clownish character, who we are supposed to like, faces mortal danger, we feel nothing toward the threat; we simply accept the idea that characters must drop like flies before the third act. While tolerable overall, the movie fails to offer a consistently captivating experience.