Movie Review: “Underwater”

The year was 1989 and as Hollywood waved farewell to Indiana Jones as he embarked on his “Last Crusade,” there was a worry in the air about the next great film franchise. At some point earlier, a whisper floated across the grapevine that James Cameron, hot off the success of “The Terminator” and “Aliens,” had settled on the bottom of the ocean for his next feature, “The Abyss.” There, a group of miners would be called on for a dangerous rescue mission only to encounter aliens and then… who knows?

“Brilliant!” exclaimed Hollywood executives. “Get me sea pictures featuring aliens!” Lo, did the battle horn sound, and two other such films of disparate quality were unleashed on an unsuspecting film going populace. This is part 3 of 3 as we reach into the Wayback Machine and dive deep to the murky depths to see what was found, and what eventually would be.

While it’s true that in space no one can hear you scream, the bottom of the ocean is a location with equal opportunities for terror. Both environments will kill a human without sufficient protection. But with water, you have the right combination of pressure, lack of oxygen and light, and the endless water – always hungry and poking at every crack looking for a way in – to fuel nightmares as is.

What happens when actual monsters are added to the mix?

That question was asked a few times in the late 1980’s with films like “Deepstar Six” and “Leviathan”, and more recently with 2020’s “Underwater” starring Kristen Stewart. Previous movies have also asked a secondary question – “What do you think the monster will look like?” “Underwater” differs because while that question is indeed presented, the creature’s identity is a well-known one for horror fans.

To its credit, “Underwater” doesn’t spell out the exact name of the monster in the film. If you haven’t seen the comments by the director, then you’re left to figure it out on your own. But knowing what it is means there is something very specific at work here, and it’s a shame the film doesn’t get into the true implications of what it would mean for that creature to exist in this world, whether it’s under miles of ocean or not.

Kristen Stewart plays a tech in an underwater mining operation that doesn’t so much answer the call to action as she answers the alarm signaling that all hell has broken lose. The film opens with the nightmare scenario – a breach. Floors are compressed, lives are lost, and the remaining crew finds themselves huddled together in a desperate attempt to survive long enough to get to the surface.

That’s just five minutes in, too.

“Underwater” is lean and moves quickly, and I enjoyed that part of it. When a thriller drags on for ages without much in the way of thrills, then it had better be on the level of “Silence of the Lambs” because otherwise it will bore the intended audience. But a modest budgeted sci-fi thriller like “Underwater” hits just right – we spend enough time with the cast to get to know them generally, the limited effects work is excellent, and the high pressure, pun intended, situation they’re in is well thought out and well presented.

The great Vincent Cassell plays the captain of the doomed operation, and his role of mentor delivers just the right amount of authority and pathos. TJ Miller brings the comic relief for as long as he’s around, and the rest of the cast is a satisfying mix of players.

I’m not the biggest fan of Stewart as I find her too lightweight of an actor. She barely holds my attention, and I have yet to be compelled to watch one of her films solely because of her. She brings similar low levels of heat here as she struggles to act inside of helmets and against massive blue screens. Her scenes with Cassell are genuinely good though, so maybe she’ll surprise me down the road.

As for the monster designs, I may veer close to spoiler territory here by describing them so consider yourself warned. The ones we see throughout the film are well done – fish-based, humanoid in appearance, and the artistry hews remarkably close to their literary origins. The eyes might have been bigger though, but otherwise the effects team nailed it. The same goes for the big monster at the end (there always is one, isn’t there?). The look of it is outstanding, and knowing what it’s supposed to be is extremely cool. But the only catch to it is what it actually is, and what that means to the larger picture.

Finally seeing this particular creature brought to life is a testament to the quality work of the artists who worked on the film. The caveat is that “Underwater” could have featured almost any “giant scary monster” and it would have been the exact same film. Nothing would change. That they opted to use this one monster, which is a huge and very specific creature from horror literature, means that the film should go a certain way. Instead, it’s a generic sci-fi underwater thriller no different than either of the two previous films mentioned in this series.

Am I glad to finally see the big guy on screen? Heck yes. But the film needed to be something more, grander, if they were going to drop it into the scenario. I may be overthinking things, but hey, I’m a film nerd and that’s what I do. On the whole, “Underwater” is a solid 90-minute pressure cooker of a film that has a grand time playing with the scenario, but can’t quite overcome a bland performance by its lead and a third act reveal that is massive in its implications yet nothing is followed through on.

This concludes our discussion on underwater monster films… for now. If you have another you’d like to see us discuss, please submit it to us and we’ll get all over it.

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