The ocean is a murky mystery and perhaps the one thing I fear most. While NASA shoots probes and satellites out of Earth’s atmosphere to explore the galaxy and potentially find new planets, our oceans remain mostly unexplored. Miles below the surface lurk alien-like creatures with large eyes, translucent skin, and the ability to live under massive amounts of pressure. It is another world down there, a place full of unknowns. It is almost unfathomable that we know so little about what exists on our own planet! What lies on the bottom of the ocean, miles away from any light? William Eubank proposes a horrifying answer in Underwater.
Underwater takes place in a future where an oil company has constructed an underwater drill in the Marianas Trench. Seven miles beneath the ocean’s surface, hundreds of people live and work under life-threatening conditions, constantly under pressure both literally and figuratively. Then, something destroys the rig, something big and terrifying. A small group of survivors are left to struggle to figure out a way to get to the surface. Among the survivors is Nora (Kristen Stewart), an anxious mechanical engineer who taps into her resourcefulness to save her team as well as herself. But she can’t prepare for what awaits her on the bottom of the ocean.
Underwater wastes absolutely no time to get into the action. No time is wasted on exposition and instead, we plunge right into a collapsing oil rig. Instead of trying to establish character relationships before the disaster, existing friendships and relationships are explained amidst the building action. While that seems like the perfect way to create shallow characters with no emotional depth, this instead makes the chemistry between this constantly shrinking group even stronger. There is no forced friendly dialogue; it is breathless conversations about how each of them are doing, words of comfort muttered in between hugs full of relief and fear.
The film’s emotional core lies with Kristen Stewart, who plays Nora as a strong, yet often hesitant, woman who isn’t afraid to voice her anxieties. She stutters with fear as she quickly fixes broken mechanical systems and questions her captain (Vincent Cassel) when his decisions seem rash. She has been compared to Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, and while there are similarities (especially in the scenes where Nora runs around in her underwear), Stewart creates her own version of the horror protagonist. She exudes a realistic anxiety that made her more likable; instead of brazen, unbelievable confidence, she is terrified. But she persists even in the face of such terror.
The comparisons to Ridley Scott’s Alien don’t stop with Nora’s character. Many have called Underwater just Alien in the ocean, but that does not do the film justice in its own brand of fear, one based around claustrophobia, fear of the dark, and its own unique monsters that do more than burst out of chests. While yes, parts of the film pay homage to the sci-fi classic, particularly in the design of the rig’s interior, Eubanks makes the ocean seem so much scarier than space. Giant things lurk beneath the surface and we may not want to find out what those things are.
Perhaps one of Underwater’s weaknesses is the inconsistency of its shooting style. In some moments, the image is crisp, the lighting is dramatic, and the film feels like a beautiful arthouse sci-fi story. But in the next moment, a scene is filmed like a found-footage horror movie with the camera shaking and the lens covered in water droplets. Either style would suit the film, but committing to one would shape the overall tone; is this an emotional, introspective story with an aquatic horror unfolding in the background or is it an all-out action-monster movie with a camera style to match the chaos? Eubank can’t seem to decide what tone he wants, so he goes for both which makes parts of the film feel uneven and almost jarring as its visual style drastically shifts.
Underwater is an anxiety-inducing thrill ride which proves that so many original horror stories are begging to be made; all they need is the support and trust of a studio. While the name of the horror game seems to be franchise reboots and adaptations, this film is a breath of fresh air and sets a hopeful tone for 2020’s horror releases. Plus it made me want to shave my head, so what else can you ask for from a big-budget horror movie?