Underwater–Kristen Stewart creates a compelling deep sea Ellen Ripley in sea monster survival thriller

Review by C.J. Bunce

You’ll find a lot familiar about the journey in the new sci-fi thriller Underwater, but it’s certain to keep you on the edge of your seat, trigger your claustrophobia, and get most of the beats of the survival thriller genre right.  Most of that is thanks to Kristen Stewart, who stars as an engineer named Norah, working in an oil drilling facility seven miles down at the bottom of the ocean.  Stewart makes our own recent tour of isolation seem pretty tame, as her world literally explodes due to some deep-sea fracking that causes an earthquake, breaking up the facility and severely minimizing the opportunities to leave for the surface.  If that weren’t enough, the earthquake releases some kaiju-inspired beasties.  It all allows Stewart to create a character as tough and heroic as Alien’s Ellen Ripley with a modern homage to the original sci-fi survivor.

Director William Eubank taps into the good stuff, Ellen Ripley from Alien, Godzilla-esque kaiju creatures, special effects on par with The Meg.  This isn’t the next Jaws, but it’s on par with The Meg (more serious, less humor).  From the dreadful Deep Star Six to Abyss and its groundbreaking special effects, the deep sea catastrophe trope struggles to find that perfect movie, but Underwater ups the ante for the genre, even for its flaws.

The action takes off almost immediately.  Just as we start to feel for Stewart’s character Norah as she seems to be suffering from some kind of isolation-induced hallucination, the audience is slammed into a struggle for survival, with an entire station crashing down on her and a few survivors.  A classic deep sea diver toy, one of many throwbacks to the earlier entries in the genre, conjures the Jules Verne and H.P. Lovecraft spark where this kind of story began.  So fans of Matt Kindt’s DeptH and James Lovegrove’s Sherlock Holmes and the Sussex Sea-Devils should also enjoy this story.

It’s also a reminder that science fiction thrillers don’t need to be set in outer space.  Films like Alien and the Cloverfield Paradox, Orbiter 9, and the survival thrills of Apollo 13, are all tapped here.  In fact if viewers were told this was a surprise entry in J.J. Abrams Cloverfield universe, it would make perfect sense.  The main weakness of the film may also be its strength: the cinematography is often too dark to see exactly what is happening, but that also might be why the scares work.  The creatures are also bizarre in design and ultimately over-the-top.  But the film is edited to the right length of only 95 minutes in an era where most movies could stand to trim a half an hour or more from the final cut, and altogether that makes for a fun ride.

This is no mystery.  It’s a ticking clock story where the viewer is constantly wondering who will get out alive.  Stewart perfectly conveys the discomfort of the journey, the deep sea suit, the narrow crawl spaces, the loss of oxygen.  Along with Stewart, Underwater co-stars Vincent Cassel (Jason Bourne) as the Captain, Mamoudou Athie (Unicorn Store) as the first survivor she meets, the always wise-cracking T.J. Miller (Deadpool) is there for comic relief, Iron Fist’s Jessica Henwick plays a nervous but smart co-worker, and Gunner Wright (The Losers) and John Gallagher, Jr. (10 Cloverfield Lane) round out the players.  And there are lots of sea monsters.

Here’s the trailer for Underwater, which is actually a strange string of unrelated scenes spliced into a more cohesive preview:

In a year that is short on big-budget movies, Underwater is a welcome surprise.  Watch it now on DVD, Blu-ray, Vudu, Amazon, and other streaming platforms.

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