Underwater is the little Alien rip-off that could

Kirsten Stewart stars in a creature-feature set at the bottom of the ocean that borrows heavily from a variety of sources.

I imagine all film critics want to appear fully objective; we want to be able to say that there are things we like without fully letting on that we, like anyone else, can be suckers for specific cinematic stuff that is impossible to explain. I would like to tell you that I approach every film in exactly the same way, with the exact same amount of preconceived notions (as few as possible, of course) every time, but I just can’t.

I am a sucker for Alien rip-offs of all stripes. The more claustrophobic and far from the surface of Earth, the better. Not all of these movies are great or even particularly interesting to defend, but what can I say? I even enjoy it when Ridley Scott rips himself off somewhat incoherently. William Eubank’s Underwater is a little higher-minded than something like, say, Life from a few years ago, but make no mistake: this is an Alien-adjacent creature feature from top to bottom.

Norah (Kristen Stewart) works as a mechanical engineer in the deepest drilling station in the ocean – a nauseating seven miles from the surface, a place where no light travels and nothing can really live. A malfunction of some kind causes a breach in the station’s wall, causing a major disaster in which a good chunk of the station is destroyed. Picking up a handful of survivors (Mamoudou Athie, John Gallagher Jr., TJ Miller, Vincent Cassel and Jessica Henwick) along the way, Norah must find a way to get to the few escape pods that remain in a neighbouring station before a meltdown kills them all. That’d be reason enough to hustle, but it also turns out that there are strange, unidentifiable creatures coming out of the woodwork — and when things come alive at a place where it’s thought nothing could live, it’s not great news.

Most of the writing in Underwater is perfunctory. The characters have bog-standard backstories (one has a kid, another has a dead partner, etc.) and the comic relief (provided almost exclusively by TJ Miller) is similarly generic. Unlike many movies of its ilk, however, Underwater spends very little time world-building or sowing seeds for the film’s eventual expansion into a universe with multiple tendrils. Underwater has that very desirable quality, found more and more sparingly in genre films of its scope and budget: it’s expeditive and no-nonsense, focused on propulsion rather than mythology. Shit starts going south less than five minutes in and doesn’t really stop, which in itself places Underwater a cut above.

What the film lacks in character development, it attempts to make up for with atmosphere. The underwater setting allows director William Eubank and cinematographer Bojan Bazelli (A Cure for Wellness, 6 Underground) to play with lighting overtly. There’s no natural light seven miles down in the ocean, of course, and Bazell gets a surprising amount of mileage from simply working with darkness and varying opacities of the aforementioned darkness. It’s a gamble that doesn’t always pay off — pitch blackness and uncontrolled chaos and destruction aren’t necessarily the most visually compatible — but it at least gives the movie a distinctive, studied look that’s miles away from the dank, digital swamp that one might expect from the premise. 

Ultimately, there’s not that much to Underwater besides a compelling, competent genre outing. It’s a compelling hodgepodge of genre elements lifted from mechanized-suit anime, The Abyss, HP Lovecraft and Alien that very much wears its influences on its sleeve without necessarily dipping too far into outright creative plunder. There are the briefest outlines of themes of corporate malfeasance hiding somewhere in there, but the film is as spartan in its subtext as it is in its text-text. Considering that Underwater was shot three years ago, is being released in early January and has scrubbed persona non grata Miller from all of its promotional material, it’s quite possible that it was seen as a salvage job by the studio. If that’s really the case, then Underwater actually accomplishes the impossible: it’s a salvage job that worked. ⬛

Underwater opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, Jan. 10. Watch the trailer below.

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