I had no problem being whisked away in a time machine, back to the spring and summer of 1989. That year saw the 3-way punch releases of like-minded flicks Leviathan, DeepStar Six and James Cameron’s The Abyss. And though I’ve never seen it, the lesser-known Lords of the Deep could be included in this oceanic thriller roundup from that era. And the specific mode of transportation to take me back in time to this special year? Last year’s 20th Century Fox release, Underwater.
The film finds our characters deep in the Mariana Trench of the Pacific Ocean, the deepest point on the earth’s surface. Mechanical engineer Nora (Kristen Stewart) survives an initial underwater earthquake which puts this vast drilling site and living quarters into crumbling disrepair and mortal danger. She meets up with a few other survivors, including the facility’s Captain Lucien (Westworld’s Vincent Cassel) and they must together plot a path through the open water to another of the mining operation’s
many out buildings where potential escape pods may still exist. Oxygen is low, morale is down and monsters are on the loose. Perhaps it wasn’t an earthquake after all.
I hesitate to mention “monsters” as some sort of spoiler, but the entire ad campaign thrived on revealing such details, so there’s that. I’ll consider myself well in the clear.
One of the most divine aspects of Underwater is the fact that it wastes no time. There is little character development to process before the danger and excitement gets underway. In fact, what character histories are eventually provided are rather flimsy. But ultimately, who cares? When things are exploding, people are running and swimming for their very lives and creepy monsters are on the prowl – all within a couple of minutes of the opening credits ending – so what?
It warmed my heart to realize that the story was driving us directly (into madness?) the cosmic horrors of H.P. Lovecraft. At first I couldn’t tell if that was what we were being shown, but by the time all is revealed, there’s no doubt left that you are seeing who and what you think you are seeing!
Performances from this seasoned acting crew, are all serviceable. But frankly, again, there’s not much in the script for them to do other than react to the horrors unfolding around them. They do it well. No complaints on that end.
However, it should be mentioned that Stewart’s work, even in light of Nora’s slim history, manages to offer up some organic emotion. I’ve always found it an interesting choice to put a gifted actor like Stewart (Personal Shopper, anyone?) into a film that is all about the action and the set pieces and the extensive special effects. It sometimes feels like a waste of their gifts but then also lends some credibility and weight to a character with little to no meat as far as “getting to know them”. Someone like Stewart brings heft to anything she does, so perhaps the filmmakers knew that Nora didn’t have much going on, so let’s get a good actor in to fill in those gaps and make her truly breathe.
Visually, I get that the film is underwater -and much of what we see is through cloudy, steamy helmets –but there were more than a few times in the action sequences, where I turned to my husband and had to ask, “Who was that?” or “What just happened?” I mean, eventually, I figured out what had just occurred, and to whom, but there was far too much murkiness (in both visuals and on-screen chaos) to be 100% clear on who was in danger at any given moment, and who made a grateful escape.
In addition to the “this is hella entertaining” aspect of the plot’s trajectory, I was quite impressed with the sets, the visual effects and the creature effects. I never fell from the story, always deeply immersed in the world the filmmakers had created. Did some of the dialogue and shallowness of the characterizations take me out of the moment? Sure, but again, that’s another story. It’s par for the course for ensemble films of this ilk, but none of these characters had one ounce of originality (properly matching the underachieving character development which I’ve hit on numerous times already – getting that point?) You’ve got the smart-ass guy, the panic-stricken female, the selfless person in command, the resourceful heroine – who luckily happens to have a trade which can be used in a difficult situation, i.e. Nora’s a mechanical engineer, and any machine which can
malfunction or break down, does… so, convenience, right? She can fix it! We’ve never seen that before!
The film has plenty of call-outs to those aforementioned “sea thrillers” above, as well as Stewart donning Ripley’s (Sigourney Weaver’s) tiny little panties (albeit in a different color) from the end of the original Alien, a film to which Underwater also owes a debt of gratitude. Look, I can tear the film apart for days, comparing it to other, better films in the same genre, with the same through-line and the same personalities. But the bottom line is that it’s just a good roller-coaster ride. I jumped a few times. I marveled at the
effects and the monsters. And frankly, that was exactly what I expected from this film. Nothing more.
So while pretty shallow (see that water reference?), Underwater is worthy of a watch. If I had to pit it against those other three “underwater danger” films from 1989, I’d tie it for second place with Leviathan, behind the best of the bunch, The Abyss, but slightly ahead of DeepStar Six.
Now available on Bluray and on several streaming platforms, it’s 96 water-logged minutes of suspense, solid effects and one helluva monster reveal. Heck, you could probably watch the whole thing as you descended to the bottom of the Marianna
Trench. Good way to pass the time and perhaps keep your mind off of the implicit dangers of deep-sea travels: pressure, mechanical malfunctions, blood-thirsty creatures… oh, wait.