The opening credits montage of Underwater lays out everything we need to know about the premise and thesis of the film we’re about to watch. Through a quick-cut series of newspaper headlines, scientific reports, and engineering schematics, it tells us it’s set about 30 years in the future, reminds us that the depths of the oceans are as unknown as the far reaches of space, and shows that a massive corporation is risking the lives and mental well-being of its employees to explore/exploit those depths. It could rightfully be called out as a lazy tactic to avoid actual storytelling, but it’s at the same time a very welcome and efficient use of time for a film that only cares about the immediate present. For better or for worse.
The Kepler Station is located in the Mariana Trench, the deepest trench in the world, where it oversees a massive drilling operation. When a gigantic earthquake hits the station and nearly destroys it, a handful of survivors must find a way to make it back to the surface. These include mechanic Norah (Kristen Stewart) and Lucien, the project’s captain (Vincent Cassel). But while the station falls apart around them, the team quickly realizes that they are not alone…there is Something out there stalking them.
When I asked my husband what he thought of the film after it was over, he said that he wanted to know how a SyFy Original got a theatrical release. To be honest, that’s an entirely valid and accurate assessment. With it’s shallow narrative, episodic structure, and 95-minute run time, Underwater is destined for a robust rotation on SyFy’s mid-morning schedule.
That being said, there’s a fair amount to appreciate about a sci-fi action film that’s this refreshingly unpretentious and as consciously, low-key stylish. What it lacks in character and narrative depth it more than makes up for in mood and movement. This isn’t so much a monster movie as it is a survival story, and it’s far more of a thriller than it is a straight-up sci-fi. The film never explains exactly what’s stalking the crew or the workings of the tech they’re using, and the film is better off for it.
There’s nothing original about the premise or concept behind the film. It’s essentially Alien with the deepest parts of the sea traded in for the farthest reaches of space. What makes the film enjoyable and worth the watch is the execution, not the set-up. Director William Eubank — who himself has traded his usual space setting for the water — knows how to draw out and lay the groundwork for some genuine and well-constructed jump scares. His use of silence is often hypnotic, and he’s adept at showing us just enough to raise our mental warning bells. A hidden figure in the corner of the screen or the muted chattering of the creatures themselves on the soundtrack are all that’s needed to step up the tension, and Eubank is judicious about hiding most of the creatures until the third act, keeping their threat terrifyingly mysterious.
The soundtrack itself by Marco Beltrami and Brandon Roberts does a lot of good work, as well. In keeping with the “space = deep sea” theme, the film’s main title sounds like a major-to-minor, remixed version of the Neptune movement of Holst’s The Planets. What was a comforting, serene glimpse of the unknown becomes darkly alluring and predatory, a siren song. The score is full of sweet, ambient strings mixed with loud, threatening super-bass hits, and while that’s pretty standard for sci-fi these days, like the film itself Beltrami and Roberts succeed beautifully in how they deliver their work.
The film has a remarkable efficiency in its approach to the actual narrative that both works for and against it. We’re given virtually no background information on any of the characters and only learn scant details as the film goes on. In fact, the first scene after the camera’s deep dive down to the base of the Kepler takes place literally moments before everything starts going to hell. Eubank and screenwriters Brian Duffield and Adam Cozad know we’re here for the action, not the drama. While that is appreciated on some level and reflects the fact that the crew are just co-workers and not friends, it also means that it’s impossible to care when some of the characters meet their inevitable demise. We barely even know their names, so R.I.P. That One Guy, I guess?
With such a thin narrative, it’s hard for most of the cast to stand out. Even TJ Miller, as the talkative and cabin-fevered Paul, downplays and smooths out his energy. Vincent Cassel stands out mainly because…well, he’s Vincent Cassel. Like Miller, he’s not putting a lot of effort here, but he doesn’t have to. His natural charisma is more than enough to elevate his performance, and Captain Lucien is a prime example of the Lawful Good, selfless team leader archetype.
Kristen Stewart, however, seems much more committed to her role as Norah, which is a good thing, as the vast majority of the film is squarely focused on her viewpoint. In fact, very little happens outside of her perspective. Stewart is an actress who’s remarkably expressive in very subtle ways, and Norah is not only highly relatable but seems more than anyone other character here to be a fully-formed human being.
Underwater is very much a style-over-substance film and very unapologetically so. Eubank’s visuals are typically much more impressive than his storytelling skills; the set design is intriguingly old-school with its 1970’s color and structure, his framing is on point, and the visual effects for the creatures are beyond reproach. But the fact that the story itself is so slight and that there’s virtually no metaphor or deeper point to it means that it doesn’t linger as long as it should. It’s fun in the moment, but it starts to evaporate as soon as the end credits roll, as if the memory is one of the Kepler’s evac pods, hurtling toward the surface.
But all things considered, there are far, far worse ways to spend 95 minutes, and some of the things that happen during the final act make it worth watching all on its own. A couple of solid genre performances, some exciting set pieces, and a haunting score buoy this film, even while it threatens to sink by a narrative without enough oxygen to sustain it.
FBOTU Score: 6 out of 10 / B-