Nearly three years have passed since the shooting of Underwater in 2017. Submerged upon the Disney buyout of Fox, it sat forsaken for too long at the bottom of the sea. The good news is that the movie is out. The bad news is that so little has come up to the surface worthy of record. Underwater does the hard and unenviable work of making an Alien (1979) and The Abyss (1989) type film dreadfully boring. What exists is a vacuous shell of a good creature feature beneath the depths. There is the hook of the premise, where the logline is the title plus alien creatures. While it seems to drive by points toward something larger, to have something to say, it lacks any truly memorable shots, grim and dark as they come, with only sudden jump scares left to keep the viewer from nodding off.
The first words that come to mind are grim and dark. Underwater is shot with a murky lens. Its best moments are not very decipherable. It allows tension to mount efficiently and produces at least two worthwhile jump scares this way. The problem is that these are such sudden moments. To walk away from a film and say its finest accomplishments were millisecond thumps of our hearts, momentary hair-raising spectacles, is to say there is not very much there. The scares are perfectly fine and one of the build-ups is at least really effective, holding true to that old chestnut, that the unknown is always scarier. That all of our delight for the horror movie is building up to the reveal and once we’ve seen too much are met with relief that casts the rest of the film into comforting contrast.
Here’s the thing about Underwater: it has the pieces to be good. It caught Kristen Stewart in 2017, which is really prime turning-to-art Stewart, rebelling alongside fellow Twilight (2008) alumni Robert Pattinson. They made the corporate money and have since made convincing turns toward more noble pursuits. The idea of her radicalized turn is inherent here. She sports the proto-Ripley haircut and wanders the desecrated alien-ridden ship in like-underwear. The other parts should fit easily into place. Her supporting cast bubbles beneath the surface with at least one potential outcome, with a sparingly funny TJ Miller, who seems to be the only one taking the project with the right irreverence. Everyone else acts how you would in front of a screen that will someday have digital aliens crawling on it. And it’s all fine and serviceable at best. At least Stewart is trying and occasionally accomplishing believability.
Underwater is a strange thing, to now be coming out of Disney, we understand where its box office hopes plummeted, as they sideline non-awards contending films that were prior Fox properties. They will take the hit, their victory of last year being an 80% hold of the box office, if not an 80 on Rotten Tomatoes. And it’s just fine. Really, you can go and see Underwater, and the jump scares might keep you awake between the dire exposition and lack of interesting shots. It is only somewhat surprising from director William Eubanks, primarily a cinematographer himself, to find it so starkly resigned from powerful images. That when the creatures are revealed and we definitely see too much of them, it is not with an abundance of creative necessity, but just to move this plot forward. Underwater is in an awful hurry to get it over with. At some point, once it gets to the climax, something terrible and wonderful happens: it ends abruptly. There is no indication we have reached an ending but we receive biopic-like summaries of what happened, what we should have been shown, as clippings of newspapers. And so it’s all very lightweight and doesn’t ever quite get to where it was going.
January 2020 is off to a slow start. As is every January, of every year, as studios release the films that have been held too long, did not have a shot at the awards, could not fit the popular seasons for getting butts in seats. Underwater solely serves the purpose of having something in cinema. At best, it is a movie that you can go and see because there are no other movies you can go see. It does not accomplish nearly enough given the infinite potentials of deep sea horror, while hinting at some grander overarching ideas, before unceremoniously fading to black. Kristen Stewart has more than arrived as a serious talent and this is not a detraction but only a footnote in a career that should indicate better things ahead.