(US - 2020)
Directed by William Eubank. Written by Brian Duffield and Adam Cozad. Cast: Kristen Stewart, Vincent Cassel, T.J. Miller, Jessica Henwick, John Gallagher Jr., Mamoudou Athie, Gunner Wright. (PG-13, 95 mins)
It's not going to score any points for originality, but UNDERWATER is a surprisingly engaging throwback to the undersea creature craze of early 1989, when we got DEEPSTAR SIX, LEVIATHAN, and the Roger Corman-produced LORDS OF THE DEEP in quick succession, all in a mad rush to beat the much-anticipated August release of James Cameron's mega-budget THE ABYSS (as required by law, obligatory Eurotrash knockoffs belatedly followed, like ENDLESS DESCENT from Spain and ALIEN FROM THE DEEP from Italy). UNDERWATER also wouldn't exist without the template provided by ALIEN, but director William Eubank (whose 2014 film THE SIGNAL showed some promise) has studied his economically-minded B-movies, diving right into the action within the first five minutes and keeping the pace so relentless and the stakes so high that you don't have time to think about any logic lapses or unanswered questions that the film either forgets about or just puts there to misdirect the audience. UNDERWATER is what it is, and that's not a bad thing. There's no dumb late-film plot twist, there's no deeper meaning, and there's only as much characterization as you need. It's an always forward-moving scare machine that seems so quaintly old-fashioned in the era of the IP/franchise/sequel/reboot/remake that you might wonder how it isn't premiering on Netflix.
cues sounds a bit indebted to Vangelis' end credits theme for BLADE RUNNER). Stewart's Norah proves to be a quietly resilient graduate of the Ripley school, and the rest of the cast acquits themselves generally well, with Cassel a dutifully heroic leader, Gallagher cast radically against type as second-string John Krasinski, and Miller providing the smartass comic relief ("I'm getting dangerously close to shitting myself"). Admittedly, UNDERWATER has some red flags: it's a horror movie hitting theaters in the doomed dead zone of January after three years on the shelf, with 20th Century Fox attributing the long-delayed release to a business decision tied to their acquisition by Disney. I guess that's possible, though one can't help but wonder if maybe execs wanted to let some time lapse following T.J. Miller becoming a #MeToo poster boy when sexual assault allegations from his college days resurfaced some time after shooting wrapped in 2017, a situation that he followed with a 2018 encore that saw him reporting a fake Amtrak bomb threat after he was kicked off a train for being intoxicated (his ongoing implosion also cost him his job as the Mucinex booger, and Dreamworks also replaced him with Justin Rupple as the voice of Tuffnut Thorston for 2019's HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON: THE HIDDEN WORLD). Regardless of the reason--Fox restructuring under the Disney regime or the cancellation of Miller--UNDERWATER being left in limbo for so long isn't an indication of its quality. We can always use more genre offerings like this that cut the shit and just do their thing. It probably won't do well in theaters, but this will enjoy a long and frequently-viewed life on streaming and cable.