2020 has kicked off to a bit of a rough start, huh? Okay, understatement of the new decade, but in many respects it does feel pretty hopeless, with political and ecological disasters threatening us daily and hardly any long term hopes in sight. And with January traditionally acting as a dumping ground for studios looking to release films they have little faith in, it’s hard to go to the movies this time of year and expect much more than failed experiments among the non-award contending releases, so even our entertainment doesn't feel like much of an escape right now. Maybe this perception is tainted by a combination of lowered expectations and a general dread at the world at large, but I was genuinely enthralled by Underwater. Derivative as it may be, as glaring as its biggest flaws are, Underwater is a great movie for right here, right now, and it is a tense little horror with a shockingly prescient message of hope.
If you’ve seen the trailer, you know we’re working with a pretty basic Alien riff. Replace space with the bottom of the Marianas Trench and the spaceship crew is now a collection of scientists working aboard a drilling rig, and you have the pieces in place for these folks to be picked off one by one by an unknown alien force. Our Ripley surrogate is Kristen Stewart’s Norah, who is introduced as an eternal pessimist attempting to live up to the memory of her deceased optimist fiancé, only for her entire undersea world to come crashing down under the pressure of a containment breach. There are a mere six survivors in total, including the expedition’s captain (Vincent Cassel) and a very 2017 T.J. Miller (almost definitely the reason this film was shelved for years), and if they hope to survive, they need to descend even further to the bottom of the trench, don pressurized containment suits to provide sufficient air pressure and oxygen, and march a full mile to another drill to reach escape pods to the surface.
To address the elephant in the room, T.J. Miller is the biggest drag on this whole affair. He’s meant as the comic relief, but his petulantly annoying wisecracks deflate all conversational momentum and pull you away from the tension, instead of providing a brief reprieve as clearly intended. The character is fine as written, but the performance entirely sucks the air out of a movie that thrives on atmosphere.
And thank god for that atmosphere, because it’s what makes Underwater pop. Whether Norah and company are crawling through claustrophobic spaces, fighting for air against limited supplies, or sifting through the murky darkness with ominous chittering warning them to turn back, the film retains a gripping aura that leaves you constantly aware that any one of these characters could die at any moment. The sound design, in particular, is excellent, as every little noise blends the benignly familiar with the ominously threatening. This breaks down somewhat during moments of intense movement, where the muddy visuals and frenetic editing lose track of characters and geography, but then again it almost feels serendipitous that we have just as little understanding of our surroundings as the characters do. It lends a certain unknowability to the creatures that stalk them, and the brief glimpses we do catch make for some impressively unsettling creature design. There is one monster in particular that made me giddy to see even a mere suggestion of its form, and it makes for a hell of climax to see this thing in its full glory.
In fact, it’s in that climax where I find Underwater really struck home for me. Sure, some things annoyed me on a technical or performative level throughout the film as a whole, but its final moments are some real top-notch emotional filmmaking that nail the emotional throughline established from the first lines of dialogue. Norah’s persistent pessimism comes to a head against the appearance of complete hopelessness, and her solution is heartbreaking in no small part because Kristen Stewart is a really good actress who is able to sell an old trope with fresh conviction. At the end of the day, this was never going to be a genre landmark or even a particularly original movie. But it mostly works, and when it works, it really, really works. These waters are a bit choppy, but they’re deeper than you think, and it’s well worth diving in.