A circle pan twirls its gaze down 70’s inspired brown-and-yellow painted walls, brightly lit yet flickering, until settling on a peroxide buzz-cut Kristen Stewart. The actress plays Norah: a mechanical engineer stationed in a drilling facility over 7 miles underwater near the Mariana Trench. In the murky depths of the ocean, time dissolves and insanity takes over, as Noah observes. Except, in this horror flick, time doesn’t dissolve. Nor does insanity take over. William Eubank’s Underwater is one big tease—a B-movie not B-enough, a serious horror flick with a dull edge, and a creature feature that never decides on a creature.
Within the film’s opening minutes, a massive breach destroys part of the drilling facility. Low angles—get it, they’re on the sea floor—follow Stewart as she races with Rodrigo (Mamoudou Athie) down the collapsing water-filled hallways to safety. Did an earthquake cause the damage or something else? At the moment, Norah and Rodrigo are unaware. Nevertheless, they trek through the facility to plot their escape. Along the way, they discover Paul (T.J. Miller) trapped under rubble, the Captain (Vincent Cassel) locked in a room waiting to go down with his ship, so to speak, and Emily (Jessica Henwick) and Liam (John Gallagher Jr.) accessing the damage in the control room.
The group convene and conclude that their only chance of survival is to travel deeper into the facility, further down to the sea floor, and to blindly walk in pressurized suits through the gloomy water to another base with escape pods. They must do so without knowing what lurks beneath.
Much of Underwater’s early going takes cues from Alien. Norah is made in the mold of Sigourney Weaver’s Ridley: intuitive, brave, and determined. However, Eubank too often teases while undercutting his lead character.
For one, Norah appears to possess some type of fear: whether claustrophobia, nyctophobia, or drowning—which turns benign due to the film not following through on her character traits. Which also goes for her tragic backstory. Furthermore, while this B-movie requires some disbelief: like their pressurized suits remaining intact miles beneath the surface—the creatures move from believable wormlike monsters to outlandishly out-of-scale. Moreover, wider conspiracies are hinted at too. Often Underwater wants to be Heart of Darkness, but relents to allow Miller’s silliness and cynicism to take over. Which as an aside, for an actor that’s been accused of sexual harassment to be painted as a cuddly character seems tone deaf. Which remains uneasily in line with Eubank’s insistence that Stewart be pantless and shirtless in multiple scenes—which dilutes her heroism through a male gaze.
Still, Underwater isn’t a snore. Surprisingly, at a tidy 95 minutes, the flick provides a couple great jump scares and some beautiful VFX and production design—especially with regards to the drilling facility. Moreover, the events do allow for pulse-pounding sequences at every turn, such as the elaborate escape from the facility, through Marco Beltrami and Brandon Roberts’ dirthy score. Nevertheless, nothing remains consistent in Underwater. It’s a mess of environmental cliches—at one point, a character says they’ve drilled too far into the earth and now the planet is taking control back—plot lines leading to dead-ends, unexplored themes, and a cache of disconnected monsters. Eubank is close to a B-movie classic, but instead devolves into D-movie status.