When Underwater was announced, I got excited immediately. For starters, it’s a horror movie starring KStew. But also, it’s set … well, underwater. An avid fan of aquatic horror films, this was right up my alley while playing on one of my major phobias – megalohydrothalassophobia. Yes, it’s a word, and yes, it’s a real phobia. Basically, it’s the fear of the unknown as it pertains to water; unfathomably dark depths that seem bottomless, the uncertainty of what’s dwelling beneath, or even just the presence of things in the water, living or otherwise. Look no further than the below images for key examples of the phobia.
So you can imagine my excitement when, on my birthday eve, my fiancé and I decided to take in the film! We don’t tend to actually go to the theatre as much as we’d like, often relegated to press screenings, so this was a rare treat. The ensuing experience left a bad taste in my mouth. While I’m well aware that other aquatic fan favorites like the beloved Deep Blue Sea are far from exquisite cinematic masterpieces, they’re still fun, engaging, and often horrifying. Underwater was, unfortunately, anything but.
Set at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, where fewer humans have set foot than have walked on the moon, the film takes place aboard, around, and outside of a deepest-sea oil rig. Because what spells “great idea!” better than putting a work environment prone to accidents in the one place where no one can save you if shit goes south? And that’s precisely what happens. Presumably after an earthquake, the big rig starts to collapse and fall apart. On a vessel with 316 people, nearly all of them die, and the survivors are picked off one by one by something in the water.
Going forward, just so you’re aware, this gets pretty spoilery. You’ve been warned.
An attempt at Alien underwater, the film quite literally hits the ground running. Without missing a beat following its exposition-laden opening credits, we’re introduced to a sports bra-clad Kristen Stewart (because that’s a practical costume choice) who plays Norah, one of the station’s mechanical engineers. She brushes her teeth, her voiceover musing about how being this far underwater for long periods of time can mess with your perception of time and reality. Then everything explodes. What follows is a harried, claustrophobic, and terrifying flee for survival in quite possibly the worst place on the planet to be stuck without a “lifeboat”.
Then it all goes downhill.
Though the film is legitimately claustrophobic and will prove a successful scare for those who suffer from the phobia, it has little else going for it.
The female characters are largely ornamental. Sorry, female character, singular, beyond Stewart and the dead woman they find in the rubble. Jessica Henwick (Game Of Thrones and Iron Fist) is woefully misused here as Emily, presumably a research assistant who has fallen in love with her employer, Smith (John Gallagher Jr.). She exists to be a punching bag for TJ Miller (we’ll get to that in a minute), a nervous wreck incapable of fighting for her life without someone holding her hand, and a strangely shoehorned sense of catharsis for our lead. In fact, the only reason she’s fighting at all to try and get out of this alive is because she’s so in love with Smith.
What’s worse is this is the impetus for Stewart’s eventual self-sacrifice at the end of the film (remember, spoilers!). In a hackneyed bit of forced exposition that’s entirely unearned, we learn that she was once engaged, but her fiancé went diving alone and got lost at sea. Based on the picture we repeatedly see of them without context, she mourned, blamed herself, shaved her head a la Ripley in Alien 3, and then went to the bottom of the Mariana Trench to pull a Greta Garbo while earning a paycheck. We know nothing else and, for the most part, we don’t care.
Their attempts to create a new Ripley are transparent and don’t land. Take a tough, intelligent, resourceful woman who runs shit and gets shit done on a rig largely populated by men who don’t seem to know what they’re doing most of the time, or make dangerous decisions that put everyone at risk. Only make her a sad woman who lost her love, so now that’s her motivation.
Ellen Ripley was originally written as a man and, despite my issues with some of his work, Ridley Scott didn’t change a thing when he decided to cast a woman instead. When James Cameron decided to write a deep and meaningful subplot about her failure as a mother in Aliens, we were given a new depth to an already-admired character that allowed us a glimpse into her mind and her soul. It feels like this was Brian Duffield and Adam Cozad’s goal with writing Norah, but they didn’t pull it off. Her motivation is underdeveloped, she’s underwritten, and we just don’t care about her.
Though the film starts off by packing a wallop, it then devolves into attempts at sweeping character studies minus the work. As a result, we don’t care about any of the characters, so their deaths are largely for shock value. They gave TJ Miller a teeny stuffed bunny that he never lets go of, presumably as a means of giving his character any likeability, but it doesn’t work.
Watching Miller here as Paul felt a lot like watching Dominic Monaghan in Rise of the Skywalker. That is to say, I spent the majority of the film’s 90-minute runtime screaming “WHY ARE YOU HERE?!” in my head. Only difference is that I really like Monaghan, and was frustrated by his being shoe-horned into a film as a device used to overshadow Rose Tico. TJ Miller is just a mean, misogynistic everyman who’s there purely for comedic relief that never lands and is often at the expense of those around him, usually minorities. Yes, I’m talking about his character.
His lines – edited to remove the asshole – could have gone to Mamoudou Athie’s Rodrigo, another woefully underused actor. He’s right there with Stewart when the shit hits the propeller and barely makes it past the first act.
It’s here that Underwater commits the cardinal sin, and we desperately need to talk about it; it kills off its token Black guy right off the hop. That Athie’s even there as the token Black guy is bad enough, but that they brutally murder him (not before Miller gets a few horrendous digs in) almost immediately is just infuriating. This is a horrible trope that people desperately need to stop writing into their films. It’s transparent, offensive, and only further propagates sidelining exceptional Black performers. And, yes, I know this film was made three years ago but, frankly, I don’t care. That’s not that long ago – they should have known better.
To cap everything off, the creature design is uninspired and also uninformed. Inexplicably anthropomorphic, the smaller creatures that we see floating around have human-like, fleshy skin – when we see a baby at one point, it appears unnaturally pink for the depths in which it’s found. They have long, gangly arms and legs, big round heads, ugly gaping maws, and razor-sharp claws that somehow also have suckers and tentacles. At least that’s what I was able to glean through the foggy water, a necessary and effective touch.
The big baddy looks like something out of Pacific Rim, and though I’m a huge fan of Del Toro’s ode to all things Kaiju, this is not the place for such a creature. It makes no sense given what we do know about deep-sea creatures. Even Cameron in The Abyss designed his deep-sea aliens to resemble the only lifeforms found at the bottom of the ocean, so what’s the excuse here? It lessens the impact, making things feel sillier than they are scary.
“Wow, it’s a MOVIE! Get OVER yourself!” you’re probably saying. But no, I will not. I present, for approval of the horror-viewing crowd who love well-made monsters, the gallery of just some of the deep-sea horrors that could have been used when designing what was coming up from the depths.
Is Underwater the next great horror movie? Unfortunately, no, but I don’t think it ever presumed it could be. That said, it took itself far too seriously from the beginning with barely any payoff.