January is legendarily Hollywood’s dumping ground, the place where bad movies go to make what they can so the studios can move on. On the surface, that is exactly what Underwater appears to be, another ripoff of films like Alien or The Abyss that the studio puts out there to make a quick buck and move on. The film did take a loss, with a budget of around $50 million, it only took in $40.9 million at the global box office, providing the studio with a loss. With all of this going against it, surely this is a clunker of a movie. That couldn’t be further from the truth.
Underwater finds a drilling crew working in the Mariana Trench suddenly facing the collapse of their facility after an apparent earthquake. The destruction of the facility begins almost immediately, not wasting time on character set up and world building, things which happen organically over the course of the events of the film, and this is a positive aspect of the film. This allows the film to jump into exactly what it does well. As what is left of the crew comes together (a claustrophobic and tense series of events in and of themselves), they find that only the captain remains (played by Vincent Cassel), as all of the escape pods have been deployed, leaving them stranded at the bottom of the ocean. The plan is quickly devised to, with the aid of pressurized suits, walk across the ocean floor to another drilling facility in order to escape to the surface.
What transpires from here is a series of events that leave the viewer squarely on the edge of their seat. Critics of the film would be quick to point out that Underwater is essentially Alien set at the bottom of the sea rather than in space. These critics would be right to a degree, as there are some moments that feel as though they are taken straight from the Alien franchise. But things eventually do move beyond their similarities to Alien and into something more akin to H.P. Lovecraft.
Underwater is at its best when it has its crew crammed into tight spaces desperately trying to make their way out of the facility. These are some of the most tense moments I’ve seen in horror in recent years, evoking both a severe sense of claustrophobia as well as a severe dread of being so far below the surface of the ocean, cut off from anything resembling civilization with no hope of rescue and little hope of escape.
The performances in the film only serve to strengthen these feelings. Kristen Stewart continues to show an ability to pick interesting films, as no doubt she could probably have her pick of horror films to take part in. Her performance here is the one that drives the movie forward for most of its duration. Vincent Cassel, T.J. Miller, Jessica Henwick, and John Gallagher Jr. round out the cast, and they all fill their roles nicely.
It should also be noted that, for a film with a limited budget, Underwater doesn’t really show signs of being curtailed in any way due to financial constraints. The special effects are very good, and both the interior shots of the collapsing structures, as well as the outside shots of the bottom of the ocean floor, both feel fully realized and consequential. When the characters are outside, walking across the floor of the ocean, you truly get a sense of what that might be like. It’s very hard to get one’s bearings in these moments, and that is not due to any shortcomings by director William Eubank. He provides these moments with edge-of-your-seat tension and leaves the audience disoriented enough to never really truly have a feel for where they are in the vast expanse of the ocean, but this is never done in a way that feels as though it’s accomplished solely because of any error by the way of the director. It’s an intentional and effective choice that only serves the film.
Underwater will, thanks to its box office takings, most likely recede into the abyss of the typical reputation for January horror releases. This shouldn’t be the case, though. While never really offering anything particularly new to the genre, as we go from a series of Alien references and then into the world of Lovecraft, Underwater does what it does very effectively. I never found myself bored by this film, and often times found myself creeping closer to the edge of my seat as the characters struggled through tight situations and the dark, murky ocean water, all while being hunted by something. It’s incredibly effective throughout and could stand at the end of the year as the most effective horror movie to be released in 2020.