Tuesday, January 14, 2020

‘Underwater’ Keeps Its Head Above the Déjà Vu

Movie audiences have been long conditioned toward preconception and expectation based on a film’s release date. It’s become generally accepted that films released just before Memorial Day and July 4th are expected to be the big-budget summer blockbusters—those box office juggernauts whose special effects budgets are eclipsed only by their marketing costs. The more serious, arty films are released between Thanksgiving and Christmas, with the expectation of garnering awards nominations. Then there is January—that post-holiday cinematic graveyard when studios unceremoniously dump films for which they have little to no expectations into theaters where they sink or swim. Deep-sea actioner Underwater neither sinks nor swims—it dogpaddles.

As far back as The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), there’s been a fascination with what lurks beneath the depths. Like deep space, the deep sea holds an element of the unknown and limitless possibility for all manner of imagined terrors, and filmmakers have been mining these creative waters since the early years of the Cold War era. I can trace my love of these underwater-set creature features all the way back to my childhood and one film, in particular—1966’s Destination Inner Space, in which a group of scientists aboard an undersea laboratory do battle with an extraterrestrial amphibian monster.

There have been no shortage of terror-under-the-seas flicks since—from 1973’s The Neptune Factor to 1998’s Sphere and 2005’s The Cave. 1989 seemed to be a particularly robust year for underwater monster mayhem with Leviathan, The Abyss, Deepstar Six, Lords of the Deep, and The Rift (aka Endless Descent) all released to varying degrees of success. Sometimes, the underwater terror made its way to the surface in films like Humanoids from the Deep (1980), Deep Rising (1998), and The Rig (2010). Other times, amplifications of familiar sea creatures—sharks, killer whales, piranha, octopus, even crabs—skimmed the surface to wreak havoc on fictional seaside communities.  

Underwater is the latest entry in this dubious tradition of sub-genre, a stylized big-budget film whose price tag (estimated at $80 million) can’t hide its B-movie pedigree. Sharing more plot-wise with Deepstar Six and Leviathan, Underwater takes place seven miles beneath the ocean’s surface on the bottom of the Mariana Trench at an underwater mining operation owned by one of those nefarious-sounding, faceless corporate entities called Kepler. The audience is barely introduced to aquatic engineer Norah (Kristen Stewart) before all hell (literally) breaks loose and much of the undersea complex is damaged or destroyed by (cue the ominous Marco Beltrami/Brandon Roberts score)…something. The deep-sea action is relentless, with Norah making her way through the ruined, leaking complex toward the central command of the drill and picking up a few survivors along the way—including Rodrigo (Mamoudou Athie), Paul (comedian T.J. Miller), Captain Lucien (Vincent Cassel), research tech Emily (Jessica Henwick), and computer engineer Liam (John Gallagher Jr.). Ragtag team of survivors assembled, it’s on to full-tilt aquatic misadventure—the requisite blocked escape routes, imploding bulkheads, risky underwater excursions across the sea floor, and the Lovecraftian sea monsters picking off the survivors one by one.

Sure it’s derivative, another submerged riff on Alien that wears its Lovecraftian influences rather conspicuously. But Underwater is also lean and very mean, pushing the accelerator to the floor from its opening moments and never taking its foot off the gas. The aggressive pacing contributes to a breathlessness to the whole affair that helps the film rise above its unoriginality. Director William Eubank hones in on the sensory elements of his setting, using tight spaces, limited oxygen reserves, and the disorientation of the ocean bottom’s zero visibility to heighten the claustrophobic tension.  What the film lacks in narrative depth, it compensates for with its respectable visual aesthetic—courtesy of cinematographer Bojan Bazelli, who also stylishly lensed Abel Ferrara’s Body Snatchers (1993), The Ring (2002), and A Cure for Wellness (2016).

Kristen Stewart, who’s spent quite a few years trying to painstakingly shake the trio of Twilight movies that have long dogged her career, ably carries the film. She commands and holds our attention, no easy feat when the character is very clearly—and unimaginatively—drawn as an Ellen Ripley surrogate. (If the close-cropped hair and bomber jacket weren’t enough, the writers even find a way to have the character unnecessarily running around in a sports bra and panties by film’s end.) To her credit, Stewart goes all in with her performance, rising above the sub-par material to fashion a respectable science-fiction/horror heroine. With little from the script itself to aid in her character’s development, Stewart instead shows us who Norah is through a series of conflicting emotions as the situation on the ocean floor worsens. She’s simultaneously terrified and panic-stricken, pragmatic and resilient—an everyday nobody who transforms into a durable, kick-ass heroine.

Underwater knows what it is and never pretends to be anything but. It’s a pure B-movie creature feature throwback to 1989—slick schlock that understands the rules and never tries to break or bend them (for better or worse).

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