There’s something exciting about the clean slate of a new year. Amidst all the awards season drama and “Best of” discussions, 2020 has arrived, and with it a whole new cinematic landscape of upcoming films. It’s a bummer, though, that the first month of the new year almost always consists of movies that studios would prefer to be buried underneath all those discussions.
Enter Underwater, the latest sci-fi horror film from 20th Century Fox, which is about as generic as its title suggests. Reminiscent of about 20 other films of its ilk (Alien and The Abyss, to name a couple), this oceanic survival story is set at the very bottom of the ocean. Unfortunately, the writers didn’t take nearly as deep a dive in developing their characters, leaving us with a shallow jump-scare fest that is hindered by its setting, instead of enhanced by it.
Kristen Stewart stars as Norah, one of the multiple crew members at a research station seven miles below sea level. Through a brief voice over, we get a sense of Norah’s rather cynical worldview, which goes part of the way in explaining her taking a job away so far away from a normal life. And that job is about to get a whole lot more dangerous.
Within five minutes of Underwater‘s opening credits, the research station becomes compromised, and water hurtles rapidly into the corridors of the base. This sends Norah, the captain (Vincent Cassell), and the remaining crew members (John Gallagher, Jr, Jessica Henwick, Mamoudou Athie, and an insufferable T.J. Miller) on a desperate journey to the life pods that will transport them to the safety of the ocean’s surface.
The script by Brian Duffield and Adam Cozad is as bare bones and cliche as they come (half of the characters don’t even have names, according to IMDb), relying heavily on situational tension at the expense of letting us get to know the characters we are rooting for to survive. There’s everything from the half-baked romance and a token black character to the irritating comic relief. Everything else is purely engineered to provide adrenaline-fueled scares, and Underwater is only partially successful at making those scares effective.
When the film makes use of the claustrophobia of being in an unstable structure that could be seconds away from collapsing under water pressure, it can be properly thrilling. Bojan Bazelli’s camerawork squeezes into the tight spaces that our characters are forced into, and the creaking, groaning sound design effectively conveys the possibility of the walls crushing our protagonists at any moment. These scenes utilize the setting and inherent danger of it quite well.
But once our characters suit up and wade onto the ocean floor, Underwater get decidedly less engaging. The jump scares become much more common, with only one or two that actually shocked. But these scary situations are filmed in a murky CGI environment that borders on being incomprehensible. And part of that murkiness is clearly intentional, meant to shroud the mysterious creatures in darkness (and maybe cover up the lack of a sufficient effects budget).
However, when the setups and scares feel so familiarly calibrated, the murky visuals frustrate and confuse more than add to the tension of not knowing what’s out there. As the creatures become revealed in full view, their designs are pretty cool, especially once we see the extent of their presence and parentage. But by that point, it’s too little too late.
It’s fun to see character actors the likes of Kristen Stewart and Vincent Cassel bring their talents to a B-movie like this, and the entire cast (save for Miller) do the best with what they have to work with. And there are moments of sustained tension in Underwater. There just isn’t enough variety or originality on display to make the entire endeavor worth it for those moments. And what we are left with is yet another January horror release that will sink to the bottom of the everyone’s collective memory by the time February rolls around.
Underwater is rated PG-13, and it’s now playing in theaters.
*All images courtesy of 20th Century Fox