Director: William Eubank
Cast: Kristen Stewart, Vincent Cassel, Jessica Henwick, John Gallagher Jr., Mamoudou Athie, T.J. Miller
Screenplay: Brian Duffield, Adam Cozad
95 mins. Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action and terror, and brief strong language.
Underwater is a movie that just couldn’t get the timing right to be successful. Shot in 2017, when T.J. Miller (Cloverfield, TV’s Silicon Valley) was less problematic, the film’s footage sat on a shelf while the team at 20th Century Fox tried to work through their potential upcoming sale to Disney. Once owned by Disney, the decision had to be made about whether the film should be finished and release, whether or not the investment would be worth the box office take, and if the finished film would be workable through any release window. This choice happened to a lot of 20th Century Fox films during that time, and Underwater was thankfully finished, but then it was unceremoniously dropped in January before completely disappearing due to the impact of COVID-19 on the box office and theatrical exhibition. Through all that, we must ask whether the film is worth searching out.
When a mysterious earthquake destroys much of a large and dangerous deep sea rig, the team of researchers and drillers that remain onboard have to make a trek across damaged vessel and open ocean floor in order to find the last remaining safe escape, but they are not alone in the water, and the odds are stacked against them.
When I saw Underwater early in 2020 (it was the first new release I saw that year), I was perhaps unfairly harsh to the film. Rewatching it tonight made me realize everything that works in the movie. For one, Kristen Stewart (Snow White and the Huntsman, The Twilight Saga: Eclipse) can carry a genre picture. There are issues with her performance (and we’ll get to them), but she carries large swaths of this movie quite naturally.
I also enjoyed much of the core cast. Vincent Cassel (Black Swan, La Haine) positively shines as Captain Lucien, the broken leader of survivors who offloads a tremendous amount of heart. Jessica Henwick (Love and Monsters, On the Rocks) also does a lot with a little as Research Assistant Emily, and I also quite liked Mamoudou Athie (The Circle, Black Box) works nicely as Rodrigo, the newby to drilling life who locks up in dangerous situations.
On the flipside, I felt that T.J. Miller bogged down a lot of his screen time with terribly-underwhelming comedic relief that fell flat regularly, and John Gallagher Jr. (Short Term 12, Hush) is given almost nothing to do, to the point where I had forgotten he was even in the film.
Where Kristen Stewart faults in the film is that I just didn’t see her fitting the character. She was either miscast or given dialogue that didn’t fit her as a performer, and some of the script didn’t work through her. That’s maybe the largest issue. Whether through choppy editing or bad writing, Underwater is bubbling with logic gaps and confusing character choices. There are moments, most notably near the end of the film, where characters completely flip on their arcs and go in the opposite direction, and no one is serviced well with the conclusion. Hastily put together narration from Stewart and newspaper clippings to fill in plotholes pop up here and there and never work the way they’re supposed to.
It’s too bad, because if this film could’ve fixed the writing, a lot of lesser elements at play here would be almost instantly improved, and given the places where the narrative ends up, I would’ve loved to see them really execute the ending because Act III is so bonkers and interesting that a better script could’ve really floated this film into another level of deep sea horror.
Underwater is a messy movie, one that floats and flounders in equal measure. There’s a lot to like here, and it’s a great display for director William Eubank (The Signal, Love) as a bigger budget up-and-coming director. The film has flaws, but they showcase a talent rising through the ranks. Had Underwater better handled their casting and screenwriting, I feel this concept would’ve been able to enter that upper echelon on modern horror classics. As it stands, the film is messy but worth checking out for yourself nonetheless.
-Kyle A. Goethe