For centuries, cultures across the globe have told tales of terror inspired by the ocean, whether those be inspired by exaggerations of real-life creatures that call the water their home or by the notion that the vastness of the sea allowing it to contain otherworldly horrors. As humans began to take to the stars to search for life somewhere else in the galaxy, and as Hollywood began to embrace the accomplishments of CGI special effects, the '90s and '00s saw horror movies leave the water behind to deliver stories of intergalactic threats. With Underwater, horror fans are plunged right back into the world of campy and creepy stories about what could potentially lurk in the murky depths, delivering a series of successful frights that fail to offer anything new to the subgenre.
Seven miles below the surface of the ocean, a drilling team has been sent to the Mariana Trench because, well, the movie needed these characters to exist down there, only for a series of catastrophic events to occur that threaten the integrity of the undersea station. As a surviving group of researchers seeks to escape their potential watery tomb, they discover that no one is really alone in the ocean, with the reason for the tragic events possibly being something more horrifying than any of them could imagine.
Following the release of Alien in 1979, which set the standard for survival thrillers, countless imitators have emerged to attempt to revive its relatively simple and somewhat campy premise to varied success. Films like The Thing, The Descent, and Life are some of the more exceptional films that utilize Alien's formula, while the number of films that fell fall short of that standard is assuredly in the triple digits. Underwater is far from being a unique experience, yet even being a somewhat compelling film is more than what can be said of many of its peers. The fact that there's no self-referential humor to be found in this excursion is indicative that the clichéd narrative was approached with complete earnestness from the cast and crew, something this subgenre rarely sees, which assuredly keeps it afloat.
One of the strengths of Underwater comes from its embrace of the lack of visibility at the bottom of the ocean. Whereas films with similar premises that are set in space have to use a variety of physical structures to compensate for not being able to see what dangers lurk in the darkness, even in a best-case scenario, deep-sea explorers are lucky to be able to see even a few feet in front of them, due to the sand and various other debris that is in constant flux at those depths. As anyone who has seen Blue Planet can tell you, there's something unsettling about seeing any sort of footage from the ocean where even a harmless animal could be existing just outside the view of visibility, made all the more frightening in Underwater's case when horrifying threats could be obscured.
Sadly, leaning into this visual theme also causes a number of disorienting moments. Multiple times throughout the adventure, we lose track of which characters are which and where they might be in relation to one another, made all the more difficult by the fact that they all wear identical deep-sea exploration suits with no distinguishing characteristics. Characters will vanish and reappear, leading audiences to wonder if we were supposed to recognize the peril these characters were in, if they have died, or if they are alive and well, though just outside of the frame. The narrative itself ultimately clears up these confusions, but audiences are left bewildered multiple times by the characters' wellbeing, making for a frustrating experience.
As opposed to its contemporaries, Underwater wastes no time getting right into the action, with fewer than 10 minutes passing before the action ignites. Similar films spend much of their first act introducing audiences to its heroes, allowing them to establish their own identities, fostering empathy for them before the chaos ensues. Instead, Underwater uses the quiet moments between its various action-oriented sequences to attempt to connect viewers with its characters, which works to varying degrees.
Stewart successfully shoulders the weight of the film's more compelling sequences, a task she deftly handled. Fans had seen her foray into the horror world with Personal Shopper and her action chops with Charlie's Angels, with fans surely appreciating her abilities at embracing all the requirements of the film's intense subject matter. Vincent Cassell and the rest of the supporting cast all give genuine performances as overwhelmed crewmembers, without them ever having to rely on exaggerated caricatures of typical ensemble stereotypes.
Underwater might manage to circumvent a handle of tropes for the formula, yet it never manages to show an ambition towards elevating itself above its formulaic peril. The adventure might have a number of engaging thrills and offer a handful of unique creature designs, but the disorienting direction and delivery of expected tropes will likely only make this film a must-see for fans of aquatic creature features.0comments
Rating: 3 out of 5
Underwater lands in theaters Friday, January 10th.
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