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In Theaters: UNDERWATER (2020)

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UNDERWATER
(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.






With a fleeting shot of a newspaper headline that shows the year being 2050 (a rather optimistic outlook for print media), UNDERWATER opens in the Mariana Trench, six miles deep in the Pacific Ocean aboard Keppler Station, a massive, multi-billion dollar drilling installation. As mechanical engineer Norah (Kristen Stewart) brushes her teeth, the sound of water dripping on the floor from the ceiling above poses an instant threat. Almost immediately, walls collapse and parts of the structure begin caving due to what's presumed to be an earthquake. She manages to escape into a closed-off area, finds fellow crew member Rodrigo (Mamoudou Athie), and in their search for a way out, encounter wisecracking Paul (T.J. Miller) buried under some rubble. The three make their way to the escape pod bay only to find Captain Lucien (Vincent Cassel) with two survivors, Emily (Jessica Henwick) and Smith (John Gallagher Jr.). Lucien has sent 22 others up to presumed safety but the remaining pods are damaged. They're the only six survivors of a 300-person crew. With radio contact cut off and left completely on their own with the clock ticking and no other options, Lucien suggests they venture a mile down in pressurized suits and hoof it another mile across the ocean floor to Roebuck Station, the nearest drilling installation (Norah: "Can you just admit we could all die?" Lucien: "Can you just admit we might live?"). A crack in a helmet causes one survivor to make an abrupt exit, as the remaning five start their dangerous trek, only to find out too late that...something is down here. 



That's it. There's your set-up. It's DEEPSTAR LEVIATHAN: UNDERWATER and the closest it gets to making a statement is Emily frantically stating "We've been taking from the ocean and now it's taking back...we don't belong here." The script by Brian Duffield (THE BABYSITTER) and Adam Cozad (JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT) sticks to a formula that's proven to work in the hands of the right director. Eubank wears his love of ALIEN and a ton of other movies on his sleeve, but in the process, focuses on the sense of isolation and claustrophobia in a way that's intensely effective at times. It's a physically demanding project for the actors, crawling through muck-filled tight spaces in the early scenes before the ocean walk, where Eubank and veteran cinematographer Bojan Bazelli (who got his start in the late '80s on several Abel Ferrara films) frame them in extreme close-up, often getting inside their helmets for POV shots where they can barely see anything in the murky depths and can't escape the strange sounds of something uncomfortably close to them. Obviously, UNDERWATER is a creature feature first and foremost, and it also doesn't disappoint on that front, with some nasty monsters that we only see fleetingly for a long time until things take a turn that can best be described as "Lovecraftian."


I don't want to oversell UNDERWATER. It's too beholden to its influences to really take itself to the next level, but it serves its purpose as a well-done genre rollercoaster ride. And sometimes, when it's done right, that's sufficient (you'll also spot shout-outs to THE DESCENT, some always-unnerving garbled audio transmissions straight out of EVENT HORIZON, some Overlook-esque corridors before all hell breaks loose, and one of composer Marco Beltrami's catchier synth 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.



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