Kristen Stewart has long ago shed the role that made her: the quiet, awkward Bella Thorne in the Twilight franchise. 2019 saw Stewart take on the very fun (but commercial failure) Charlie’s Angels and this year she continues her journey to fully-fledged action star with the uneven but still impressive deep-sea thriller Underwater.Directed by William Eubank from a script by Brian Duffield and Adam Cozad, Underwater follows the crew of a subterranean laboratory located seven miles beneath sea level as they fight for survival in the face of a terrifying threat. So far, so Alien, and honestly Underwater is at its best when it’s wearing its influences on its sleeve. But a lack of convictions — and belief in the audience — often makes the film feel weaker than the excellent and ambitious sci-fi that’s come before.
A great example is the opening: we watch Stewart’s Norah in the bathroom, the silence and weight of the water near tangible. Eubank’s direction is interesting and tense, and Stewart is electric. But just minutes in, and moments before the inciting disaster strikes, we get a Blade Runner-esque voice-over which A) makes no sense and B) takes away almost all of the power of the scene. That battle between atmosphere, ambiguity, and the need to handhold the audience sadly never achieves balance and quickly becomes one of Underwater’s biggest flaws.
With a reported $65 million budget it’s probably not surprising that Eubank wasn’t allowed or encouraged to make something completely experimental, but those moments of quiet slickness and vast expansive action within the confines of the underwater lab are where the film really excels. Aside from T.J. Miller (who we’ll come back to later), Underwater has an impressive cast who are all incredibly fun to watch. Stewart is a ball of anxious energy as she faces near imminent death and destruction. Vincent Cassel shows off just why he was a leading man for so long with a grizzled performance that works so well alongside Stewart that you slightly wish it was just a two-hander of the pair trying to fend off the inevitable. The Get Down’s Mamoudou Athie is wasted, but in the early moments that he gets he utterly shines. Jessica Henwick breaks out from the Marvel Netflix universe with Emily, who begins as slightly annoying but ends triumphant. Genre stalwart John Gallagher Jr. is sweet and charming enough as Henwick’s romantic interest. For an ensemble sci-fi that really relies on the actors and their performances, it’s a solid ensemble.
Except for Miller, whose role feels wildly out of place in the intimate sci-fi thriller. In fact, though Miller does nothing to elevate the role, it’s really his character that’s the problem. The bro-y dunce who “probably doesn’t read,” makes bad jokes, and is ostensibly the comic relief is an overdone trope in science-fiction horror and here he feels entirely expendable. The jokes don’t land, his attitude doesn’t fit that of anyone else on the vessel, and it’s never entirely clear what his job is. Unless you have some kind of intelligent and entertaining take on this archetype, let’s leave them in the dust in 2020. Miller’s forgettable character weighs down every scene he’s in, breaking any tension the film does manage to build and adding nothing to the journey.
Speaking of that journey, Underwater definitely doesn’t drag. Within five minutes you’re thrown wholly into the anxiety-inducing world of deep-sea terror where Norah, Emily, and their ever depleting supply of expendable men try to escape what at first seems like an underwater earthquake but is quickly revealed as something else entirely. That reveal is another of Underwater’s more mundane moments.As any horror fan knows, often what’s in your imagination is far scarier than anything that can be crafted by someone else. Once the CG sea monsters hunting the crew are unveiled it all becomes far more Pacific Rim than Alien, especially as much of the second and third act takes place in the ocean itself which often looks more cut scenes from a AAA video game than a big-budget Hollywood film. Maybe that’s what Eubank and co. were going for, more of a big bombastic blockbuster with arthouse sensibilities. But it seems a shame as the practical sets, costumes, and cast really shine when that terrifying ambiguity (and lack of obvious CG) are centered during the first act.
That’s not to say you won’t enjoy Underwater. Stewart is an engaging and badass action lead, Cassel and Henwick are charming supporting stars, there are some of the coolest and most interesting suit designs outside of video gaming, and overall it’s an action-packed ride that will likely entertain if you decide to head out and see it. But it feels like there was far more potential here for Underwater to be something really special. At moments another film seems to sneak in, teasing you with its clarity of vision and weird quietness, with an understanding of the claustrophobia and isolation that makes the film’s setup so scary. But that isn’t the movie we got, which makes it hard to love the shallow yet fun popcorn film that Underwater ultimately presents itself as.