Film Review | Underwater: The great escape from a watery grave

Kirsten Stewart works hard to lend some earnest dramatic chops to this dour, murkily lit creature feature that nonetheless delivers the thrills when the occasion calls for it

Everyone loves a creature feature, but the recent ones we’ve been getting have proven to be a tad patchy. Underwater is perhaps a slight notch above the rest, though that’s more down to the game cast and some expertly designed jump scares rather than the inherent structural integrity of its script or the vision of its director – cinematographer turned filmmaker William Eubank, working off a script by Brian Duffield and Adam Cozad.

And in fact, the sudden lack of structural integrity is arguably the main trigger for the plot here, as a deep-sea mining project under the Mariana Trench run by the shady Tian Industries hits a pretty major snag when its base becomes compromised by what appears to be a violent earthquake.

This all happens as Tian mechanical engineer Norah Price (Kirsten Stewart) brushes her teeth during her morning ablutions, even if an overlaid voiceover – whose stilted, poorly written nature gets no better when it reappears at the climax – informs us that day and night has ceased to have any meaning to Tian’s employees, and that her particular glorified incarceration among its ranks may or may not have something to do with the fallout of a recent personal tragedy. The quake that announces the action is a beautifully designed jolt that is hardly matched by what follows, even as the Lovecraftian sea monsters make themselves known.

But Underwater remains a solid slice of B-movie schlock that peeks its head just above its more recent counterparts, such as Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019) and Pacific Rim: Uprising (2018), sequels to variously promising franchises which have failed to live up to the bursting fun of their on-paper concepts. There are moments when Eubank’s trip six-to-seven miles below the seabed dredges up creepy horrors which may, in a flattering light, resemble something that comes close to the legacy of Ridley Scott’s original Alien (1979). And in the wake of the inglorious evolution of that particular franchise, the grimy and stripped down hide-and-chase monster feature, with the androgynous and convincing Stewart at its centre – now fully rehabilitated as a bona fide actor post-Twilight, much like on-screen partner Robert Pattinson has been – serving as something of a Ripley stand in, might be a welcome balm for Alien fans looking for more old school thrills.

Sadly, a lot of the promise is sucked out by muddled photography and sound design, where injudicious dim lighting and mumbly dialogue is put forward as a shoddy replacement for what could have been an authentically claustrophobic, haunted moodscape that is redolent to the horror-overtones of the venture. Cast-wise, Vincent Cassel is brought in to match Stewart’s A-lister chops as Captain Lucien, and Deadpool’s T.J. Miller all-too-easily slips into the token comic relief shoes.

While her partner Liam (John Gallagher Jr.) almost literally sleepwalks through most of it, an inspired coalition forms between panicky biologist Emily (Jessica Henwick) and Norah, coinciding with a long-awaited third act showdown.

Shedding all pretensions to the loftier heights of Alien and its ilk, it all goes down in a burst of sound and fury… and underwear.

The verdict

Armed with precision-aimed thrills that will make the trip to the movies worthwhile but hampered by a generic script, Underwater is a competent little creature-feature that will likely find a more welcome audience when it eventually – inevitably – makes it to Netflix.