I love Aliens and The Abyss; I’m a sucker for disaster and survival films, even if they aren’t wholly original. So, I was looking forward to watching Underwater. I caught it last night after rewatching Frozen 2 (and which I preferred to the original). But did I like Underwater?
In a word, no. I almost hated it.
And not because an early jump care had me actually yelping out loud. It’s because it’s a stupid story.
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Without spoiling anything, if you’re a horror-Kaiji-Eldritch Creature-Geiger-fan, you might like this more than I did. And I’ve seen last-man-standing movies I really liked. This just isn’t one of them.
For one thing, even in the theater, it’s difficult to hear and see what’s going on for almost every action-set-piece in Underwater. Murky. Loud. Hard to follow. This is not acceptable in a feature film.
Also, I never grew to care about any particular character. That should never happen in an adventure ensemble. Remember how it took so little storytelling to care about all the Space Marines in Aliens? That was excellent exposition. Doesn’t happen here.
Then, the gory, hungry critters are bad. And not in the Borg way of cool-bad. Just…useless. What are they eating down there, 7 miles under the sea? How do they survive the pressure of the depths? What the holy hell is that ‘big one’ about? It’s played like a Balrog-Under-The-Sea. We delved too deep and all. Where’s Gandalf when you need him?
In Pitch Black (as a perfect sci-fi- horror-lite example) I enjoyed the narrative so much that I overlooked the environmental/food issues with the Xenomorphs in question. I couldn’t be bothered to let it go in Underwater. What were the nasty humanoids eating, besides a handful of lost sea drillers? I didn’t care. Ugh. I understood the digestion issue of swallowing things whole, but it grossed me out and felt like that was the entire point: to be icky, as far as the PG-13 bounds allow.
It’s a solid low-B range movie. Or a high C…so I should stop reviewing this now before I downgrade it. I just have higher standards for this kind of thing and never plan to watch it again.
Also, this isn’t the best vehicle to get Kristen Stewart out of of her Twilight doldrums, although she tried her best to be all Ripley here, underwear and all. I’m still unclear what her backstory is.
Boom! More boom! If that’s enough plot for you, you’ll enjoy this more than I did.
Movie Grade: B-
I recommend seeing Pitch Black (or Aliens) again instead for A+ examples of this genre done right:
Is there anything extra during the end credits of Underwater?
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Dan Gardner Administrator
Sounds like a movie that relies on cheap scares and not on character. As you mentioned, there’s been many movies that got this right. I’m curious what the process is for making a bad movie, as opposed to a good movie. Where does it start to go off the rails?
Jill Florio Administrator
Excellent question, Dan. I was thinking about another movie this was done right – Deep Blue Sea. A perfect B film; an extremely enjoyable outing (from 1999, even) where this same exact story is told RIGHT. Some great actors help hold it up, but they aren’t ultimately crucial to the narrative. The underwater set is a standout feature, and I don’t know why Underwater couldn’t replicate that.
Also, The Abyss did this same kind of ocean floor thing and made me care about each character, with very little side-plot meandering. I cry every time I watch the girl in Abyss as she drowns in terror to save the guy (and hopefully herself). “You never ran from anything in your life!” I almost wet myself the first time I saw when the Titanium ring saves the lead fellow…when the rat almost gets left behind…when Micheal Biehn succumbs to the pressure of the depths…see? These are OLD MOVIES I am suggesting. Pitch Black was out in 2000. Aliens is, what, 30 years old now? Yeah, 1986.
How come these old-ass films did it right and a 2020 movie fails so hard?
Kristen Stewart really isn’t to blame here, although she has exactly two expressions in Underwater, just like Twilight (is that a thing with her?). And her co-stars are…I don’t even know. One guy was like a low-rent Hudson from Aliens (hey dude, spit out the gum when getting enclosed in a depth pressure suit).
Honestly, a walk on the ocean floor 7 miles down the Marianas Trench should have been a stand-out set piece. Instead it was littered in specks and flotsam and lacked any real sense of dread.
Remember how in Aliens we saw the Marines get ripped to shred via their video cams and life support monitors? THAT WAS HOW TO DO THIS. A creative form of battle exposition. When Gorman (see, I know these character’s names) falls to pieces watching the monitors, and Ripley decides to step in, I cheer every time. You go girl! She’s also terrified beyond rational thought, but she does what a person should do in extremis, and saves what’s left of the team. I get chills thinking about it. “Stand down, Ripley. Stand down.” Excellent stuff.
I think Underwater is just lazy. It touches on the standard beats and is content with that. It’s like Lightspeed Skipping. 😉
And the sacrifices don’t feel earned because I don’t understand the backstories. I think they were mentioned, but the movie was hard to understand, and it shouldn’t be my fault that I walked out non-plussed.
Another example of doing this right: A Quiet Place. We don’t even get a definitive answer to what the creatures are (some prominently shown newsclippings efficiently give us enough to chew on). We don’t need to actually know, because the characters don’t, and we CARE about them.
Even the silly but fun Escape Room from last year did a last-man-standing story right, and it was basically a throw-away movie that surprised everyone by being good.
So, after a long detour, to answer your question about when Underwater went off the rails…hmmm. The beginning is good. Things in the drilling rig start banging and booming quickly. Dread builds when we see the first death and first critter. When someone asks if this is a “baby”, I started to get gripped. This is after my actual yelp moment (I screamed out loud. I don’t think I’ve even done that in a theater before).
Maybe it’s because it was filmed so close to Stewart’s face, ostensibly to increase the feeling of claustrophobia. I guess. But the sets should have been better used here as she went from safe port to safe port. She even has a “Gravity” moment that works okay. You’ll know it when you see it.
I think it’s because the writers didn’t bother to give the characters anything to do besides be monster-bait. When someone is dragged across the ocean floor, I didn’t care by then.
I’m not going to go into the creatures, because fuck it. Honestly, this would have been a better film without them. Try this: the undersea rig falls apart (earthquakes) and people have to get to the ocean floor to get back to the surface and survival. They have to do a space walk to get to an abandoned outpost and figure out the next step. This would be good enough for a whole movie (see: The Martian)! Even the Titanic tells this story, knowing that we know how it ends, and does it with power and passion. Apollo 13 tells this story. How do you survive when the odds are staggeringly against you and the environment is painfully lethal?
The more I think about this, the more I want to give Underwater a D grade.