Deep below the surface of the ocean, within the Mariana Trench, the Tian cooperation is drilling the sea floor for resources. Among the crew of this complex rig is Nora Price (Kristen Stewart), a deep-thinking, cynical person who has a sort of bleak outlook on life; seeming disconnected from the world around her. At the start of the film, she explains in a monologue how being in the darkness of the ocean for months at time can mess with your head. But things aren’t going to stay normal for long.
While Nora is preparing for bed, a sudden earthquake causes the rig to suffer major structural damage under the water pressure. As she scrambles to safety, she meets and rescues fellow workers Rodrigo (Mamoudou Athie), Paul (T.J. Miller), Haversham (Jessica Henwick) Smith (John Gallagher Jr.), and their Captain Lucien (Vincent Cassel). With all the escape pods taken, their only option to walk across the ocean floor to another station in the hopes of escape.
But as they make their way to their destination, they start to realize that they’re not alone outside. The further they go, the more they encounter what appear to be strange new sea creatures along their path. And these creatures have no intention of letting them escape. With eminent death staring them in the face, the crew must brave their darkest fears in order to make their way to the surface and escape these ravenous monsters.
If this plot line sounds kind of familiar, its because it is very similar to the plot of the 1979 horror classic Alien. This consensus has been held against the film ever since the first trailer came out. The parallels are uncanny. From the claustrophobic setting and situations to the vicious foreign creatures that are the film’s villains. So does all this mean it’s a bad film? Well, not necessarily. Underwater may be a derivative story, but it’s well acted and competently enough to, in the end, be a fun movie nonetheless. It has a variety of clever scares and enough mystery about the monsters to keep the thrills consistently coming, even it it doesn’t offer much in the ways of dramatic motivation or proper character development.
The film is mostly saved thanks to the work of the cast, specifically Kristen Stewart. For staring in a B-level horror movie, she gives a surprisingly A-level performance as Nora Price. There’s a level of charm and emotion to Nora’s near emotionless face that Stewart really conveys. She never looks afraid right on the surface, but you can see in her eyes that deep down, she’s absolutely terrified. It’s a stunning performance that really keeps the movie going during its slow moments, and you’ll find yourself rooting for her to survive the ordeal.
But another actor to really hold the screen is Vincent Cassel, who gives a committed performance as Captain Lucien. The grizzled sea captain is a character we’ve seen before, but Cassel plays it with so much emotion that you’ll be rooting for him too. Really, it’s the cast that comes to the rescue when the movie begins to stumble. Everyone does well in their respective roles.
Yes, even T.J. Miller. Early reviews were quick to point him as one of the film’s biggest flaws, labeling his character as annoying or out-of-place. But he actually isn’t as annoying a character as some are calling him. In fact, he’s actually quite charming. He’s the average jokey guy that we question why he’s even in this scientific setting; acting as the comic relief in the most tense situations. While many of his jokes don’t land, he’s still a charming presence that lightens the mood when the horror really amps up.
However, all this is not to say that this film is flawless. Even though it is a fun film, one can’t help but see where the filmmakers could have done something more with the story. All of its problems start there. We’re dropped directly into the action with no real time to get proper introductions to the characters or motivations beyond the basic “let’s get out of here before we die.” It ends up feeling like an episode out of a 60s anthology series rather than a full film.
Actually, it seems the film would have fared better if the creatures weren’t apart of it, or at least weren’t the villains. The idea of fighting for survival in a destroyed rig 7 miles below the ocean surface is already a more thrilling and engaging film without the ravenous sea monsters coming into play. Even the idea about losing touch with reality isn’t explored once it’s introduced. So many interesting ideas; all get thrown to the side in favor of evil sea monsters.
In the end, it feels like the writers only scratched the surface on what the film could have been. Maybe their intention was to create a tense creature feature, but with what they did, they may have unintentionally opened the door to something more thought-provoking and dramatically involving then the story they chose to focus on. It’s hard to fully enjoy something when you can clearly see the essence of something better hidden within the cracks of the script.
Underwater is a fun and frequently tense sci-fi thriller, and the cast give everything they can to make the film watchable, and they mostly succeed. However, with so much more potential hiding beneath the surface, it’s hard to accept what it is without wishing it was something more. If you’re looking for fun, there is fun to be had. But if you’re looking for something more intellectual, you may find yourself wanting to explore depths deeper than the film’s own characters.