As Underwater began its final third, I found my attention go daydreaming back to the opening 30 minutes which represented the most engrossing, engaging and sustained burst of action that I have experienced in a film for a good long while. What a shame that the genre clichés that this film subverted and playfully transcended in its opening salvos caught up with it in the end.
For at its core, Underwater is inescapably a genre picture, and ultimately one we’ve seen too many times. In the (seemingly) near future, there is some sort of project underway involving a seven mile drill and the Marianas Trench, for what we can assume are the vague reasons of cinematic science and/or corporate greed. The film wisely dispenses with even a cursory explanation of the wheres and whys of the whole scenario, opting to instead showcase any exposition within the opening and closing credits, the former of which seem ripped out of an early 90’s Trent Reznor project. We glean enough to know that a cadre of researchers and workers are living on-board this giant drill, and are scarcely able to orient ourselves via a moody Kristen Stewart voice over before the unexpectedly unexpected happens courtesy of a series of explosions and mechanical failures which send Stewart’s Norah on a mad rush to a more stable part of the station.
Thus begins what is almost an uninterrupted sequence of tension and escalation that is far and away the movie’s highlight. Claustrophobia, leaking and rising water, live wires and mechanical failures all contribute to what truly felt like a race against time as Norah and the various survivors she encounters along the way think on their feet (and knees and backs) to develop a plan of escape. There is nothing extraneous or wasted in these early moments, no need for a rumination on what is causing the disaster or any wider meta-commentary that might stem from a closer examination on what these people were doing on this station, why, and for whom. I admired the simplicity and focused approach that was enhanced by some deft directorial choices and set design that added authenticity and true tension to the proceedings. My hope was that the tension built in these early sequences could be sustained for the duration, resulting in an uppercut of a film that made full use of its lean 90-minute running time. Unfortunately, the more characters that were collected and the more we learned about why any of this was happening, the spell was broken and the momentum dragged.
A word about Kristen Stewart, who truly carries the film, and who I personally have been wanting to turn into an action-hero for some time (we’ll just ignore her unfortunate role in last year’s abortive attempt to reboot the Charlie’s Angels franchise). The way that she has played with various notions of gender and androgyny in her own personal style and career makes her ideal for these types of roles, which too often have been caricatured as bizarrely attenuated machismo on the one hand or male-gazey misogyny on the other. With a close buzz and (at the beginning at least) glasses, she upsets the archetype while being able to summon the grit and power that makes her more extreme exploits believable. Her closest cinematic counterpart would be Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, and, indeed, Underwater’s single biggest influence is Ridley Scott’s Aliens (1979), from the perspective of characters, set-design, attitude and creatures that you wish had stayed in the dark, though not necessarily for the reason the director intended.
Stewart’s Norah encounters the typical rogues’ gallery: a stoic older captain, a character who’s sole purpose is an attempt at comic relief, a sweetly loving couple, a person of color who is the first to die (can we let that trope die in 2020?). No one aside from the captain gets more than a cursory characterization, and the dialogue, which was never razor sharp to begin with, trends more and more towards the dopey as things move along, but so long as they keep moving we are scarcely bothered by it, and excited to see the crew navigate dark corridors, faulty pressure suits, malfunctioning elevators. There almost seems something novel in a film which wastes no time, doesn’t try to dazzle or justify its existence and simply just goes. Alas, the filmmakers could not resist introducing an explanatory element to the proceedings which saps the film of its character and provides a (disappointing and poorly designed) raison d’etre for questions we were too busy enjoying the action to ask or care about. As the film tries to introduce more depth to the characters and more reason to the proceedings other than “we need to move” my attention steadily waned. What kept this film singular and exciting was its initial lack of any external trappings. Sometimes there can be too much of a good thing.
Two and a half stars.