Underwater is a recent sci-fi/creature feature horror movie. It follows Norah (Kristen Stewart), who is working on an underwater drill seven miles down in the Mariana Trench. The station has taken severe damage in what they believe is an earthquake, so Norah and fellow survivors she meets up with must fight their way back to the surface. As they make their way through the station and across the ocean floor, they begin to question if it was really an earthquake that started this, as well as discover sea life that should not exist.
Underwater is underperforming, let’s just get that out of the way right upfront. The movie was released on the 10th of January and is already being pulled from multiple theaters due to low ticket sales. Some are blaming the idea of January being the worst for horror (Heather Wixson wrote an interesting op-ed about January horror, and it’s undeserved reputation). Some say it’s too much of an Alien rip-off (it’s not), and I personally think that unfair hatred of Kristen Stewart is having an impact. No matter what the cause, or more likely causes, Underwater is set to be a flop, and I cannot support that. So yeah, we are skipping to the bottom line of “go see this movie” right away.
Underwater is a tense, well-paced, action-adventure, horror film. It kicks off right away with little build-up to the event, leaving our survivors desperate to save their own lives. Underwater pushes the audience into the deep end (heh) and just keeps going from there. Yet despite this quick rush into the meat of the story, it still manages to create compelling characters and just enough story that we actually care. The problem with a lot of horror films that kick off like this one is the stakes end up not being high enough for the audience to care. Underwater manages to avoid that by giving us just enough pieces of solid character development without ever stopping in its desire to be continually pushing the audience.
I also like that it is so fast because a lot of movies that set up the premise of “we only have so long to get out” tell us that everything needs to be done with a degree of speed but then doesn’t actually follow through with it’s pacing. Underwater manages to create a true sense of urgency that adds an extra layer to the horror. You want them to stop and look around so we can see what is hunting them through the darkness, but we kind of need them to hurry up, so they don’t die trying to escape.
And speaking of being hunted in the darkness. Underwater has so much damn atmosphere. Everything around the movie works together to create one of the best/worst horror experiences on setting alone.
The rig and inner settings have a great future-retro feel, lending to the Alien comparisons. It is awesome because it manages to have all the callbacks to 70s sci-fi just in setting, technology, and attention to detail. Yet nothing about it feels dated or too obvious. Oh, the computers look slightly old school, but they are advanced, and the looks are so they are industrial for safety. You get the feeling that the movie is going for without it being over the top, at least not for me.
The underwater sequences are amazing. The suits the group uses are well designed and pleasing to the eye, but they also add a layer to the feel of the movie. Beyond that, the darkness and overall feeling of helplessness of being that deep underwater are well used, as I said atmosphere for days.
The movie is also extremely tense, and balances build up and horror well. A lot of the moments are pretty predictable. Given the setting, there are a few deaths that you assume you are going to see (something pressure-related was a given from the moment I sat down). It is not so predictable that it takes away from the tension, however. There is also good use of bait and switch where you assume that you know when the scare is coming but then actually plays out differently than anticipated. These moments can help keep the audience guessing so that they don’t always know what to expect and when. Still, it is not the most surprising horror movie. However, while expected to some extent, the scares still land more often than not.
The movie is also an amazing example of cosmic horror, just not in the cosmos. There is great debate over what actually qualifies as cosmic horror, but for me, it is about humans looking beyond themselves, which is why it largely happens in space, and realizing how small and insignificant we are and the fear that comes from that realization. Underwater has that in spades. Everything about their situation is beyond them and beyond what they are capable of because everything else is more powerful. The ocean is more powerful, the rig that they built is too much for them, and the creatures they encounter show their insignificance.
Much like in movies like The Void, Event Horizon, Alien, and so many others inspired by and moving beyond the Lovecraftian idea of our insignificance, Underwater presents our heroes with a void that threatens to overcome them and the stark reality of how small we are.
I think (and I will try not to give too much away) that this might also be a factor in the mixed reactions. I don’t think people were expecting the big, figurative and otherwise, reveal and that some people are not sure how to respond to it or flat out don’t like it. I was making jokes about where the movie was going to go when we arrived only to find out that my jokes weren’t exactly jokes. I hadn’t actually expected that, but I love that they did it.
Underwater was at great risk of being an entertaining movie but lacking something extra. That wouldn’t have been a bad thing necessarily, but I personally love that it was something more. The choices made and leaning into this idea of cosmic horror was brilliant. It was the icing on what was already a damn fine cake.
All of this praise doesn’t mean that the movie is perfect; it’s not. Again some of the scares are a touch predictable. There are also a few moments where things are just a little too conveniently placed to give us some development. I also noted that character development was overall well done, and I stand by that, just with the note that some things were introduced and then never fully fleshed out. Paul and Smith’s characters both stand out with this.
One of the glaring flaws to me is the narration, though. It is completely unnecessary, and all the information that Norah gives us with her narration could, or in fact was, done through visuals and her simply talking to herself. We only hear her inner voice twice, and both times it’s a little jarring and just felt off to me. It seems like such an odd thing for me to nitpick, but honestly, it bothered me.
Now, none of my issues change my overall feelings about this movie. It was scary, intense, had good characters, decent if not fast pacing, and was just an entertaining movie. It made me feel uncomfortable in that lovely way I enjoy horror movies doing, and I just thought it was well done. My complaints are mild, and while they might prevent me from saying, “it’s a favorite,” they certainly didn’t stop me from loving this movie.
I am extremely disappointed it’s underperforming. I can see some might not like the reveal as I said, but I think it was a great moment that took the movie to another level. I highly recommend that people try to see this movie while they have a chance. It is worth it, and worth seeing on the big screen. It is not without its flaws, but it is just really good. I hope there is a turn around in the reaction to this movie and that it is able to make a final push.