Note: We are going to get into some significant spoilers for both Underwater and Alien below. Consider yourself warned.
On the surface, it is easy to see where the comparisons between Underwater and Alien come from. Both have a kickass heroine who appears in her skivvies. Both involve unknown species. And both deal with the vastness of a big empty void. But scratching beneath these superficial similarities exposes the fact that the comparison does not really hold water. (Get it? Surface? Water?). To say that Underwater is just a lesser ripoff of Alien speaks to the relative quality of the films, but ultimately ignores the core value of each film and thus ignores what makes each of them good in their own right.
As highlighted in Leigh Monson’s review, Underwater is a bit inconsistent, but a heck of a lot of fun. The action starts within moments of the film’s opening with Norah (Kristen Stewart) outrunning the categorical failure of a research station seven miles below the surface of the ocean, deep in the Marianas Trench. Norah and the few survivors must be smart and take risks if they have any hope to survive. If the destruction and depth was not bad enough, there is some unknown creature, or creatures, trying to kill these remaining humans for … reasons. Though it is hinted at that their capture and examination of an infant version of whatever is hunting them might be the source of the attack, this is neither confirmed nor explored past a fleeting moment. Considering the assaults on the station started far earlier than their discovery of the possible offspring, it is understandable that they quickly drop this avenue of thought.
Alien, as we all know, is the 1979 horror sci-fi classic which inspired countless other space scares. Arising alongside the slasher genre, Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley had a stake in how a “final girl” should look and act while battling whatever has killed all of her friends. However, if we can take one lesson from Alien’s lasting legacy, it is that this film is different than its contemporaries. The idea of a justified “monster” and the crew’s surface exploration being the direct cause of their imminent horrors make us examine the value and entitlement to life, not to mention the question of computers and morality. The fact that we are still discussing Alien over 40 years after its release goes to show how incredible it truly is.
Beyond the already stated shallow similarities between Underwater and Alien, they have little in common. Structurally, they could not be more different. The action in Underwater starts moments after the film begins, before we even meet all of the characters or even know the layout of the station. From there, the survivors have a clearly laid out journey to complete in order to fight their way toward salvation. Alien eases us into their world, by letting us watch the crew of the Nostromo eat their first meal together after emerging from suspended animation. As the film progresses, the tension mounts. There is little in commonality here.
The nature of the research for each crew is entirely different too. While Alien has a small crew of just seven (including one smug android). Their ship is a towing vessel. The crew each have their own specialization, but they are not scientists. The very nature of the deep underwater station in Underwater is to explore depths humans have not yet explored. None of the survivors are specifically scientists, but the purpose of their mission hangs over the whole film. From time to time, their hysterical intern (Jessica Henwick) mutters that they should not have been there in the first place, reminding us that overstepping natural boundaries might be partially to blame for their predicament.
Beyond the descriptors of the two films' plot, cast, and location, the major fundamental differences between Underwater and Alien are the questions each film raises. Underwater teases some understanding of the perils of going where humans are not welcome, but ultimately it is truly about self-sacrifice and love. As sappy as that sounds, it is love and choosing to have love survive which drives Norah and wins the battle against the undersea monsters. The simplicity of its message is inelegant, but understandable given the film is not terribly concerned with messages and instead focuses on action. Alien, however, utilizes its slower burn to ask much bigger questions. It’s clear delineation from stupid actions to the consequences of those actions actively engages on the themes of the value and integrity of life, the limits of humanity, and ultimately what makes us human. At the core of each film is a different lesson and a different intention.
Sure, there are plenty of similarities between Underwater and Alien, but to say that one is a straight homage (or ripoff) of the other is to deny the core nature of each film and, ultimately, each film's strengths. Underwater is a thrill the minute it hits the ground (literally and figuratively), with a penchant for nihilism and a brief kiss of character development. It merely nods to the greater risks of the deification on scientific pursuits and is largely concerned with morality and its construction. Alien, as we all know, is all about the risks of isolation and a contemplation on the nature of life and propagation. Its tension is not to be ignored, but at its core it is about one life fighting another for survival and a computer doing exactly what it was programmed to do.