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Underwater review – a fun disaster movie but not a deep horror

It’s often claimed that we know more about deep space than we do about the deep oceans. The truth of this is debatable – it’s a slight exaggeration of a quote by oceanographer Paul Snelgrove,  “We know more about the surface of the Moon and about Mars than we do about [the deep sea floor]”, but we do know surprisingly little about something which covers the majority of our planet’s surface.

In fact, as Arthur C. Clarke realised, we don’t live on Planet Earth. We live on Planet Ocean. Worse than that, we live on a handful of precarious rocks poking out of Planet Ocean. Is this why space seems more attractive for exploration? Space is terrifyingly empty, but at least it holds the tantalising possibility of being filled. The ocean, on the other hand, is already crushingly full. Not just with the immense pressure of water but with the strange, alien creatures we already know live there and the even stranger creatures we fear might live there. Even the word thalassophobia, the fear of the ocean and its teeming contents, feels unpleasantly full and slithery in the mouth. The ocean isn’t ours, it seems to suggest, but space could be.

Yet, beyond a handful of notable examples, the ocean never seems to work for horror films. Even the finest example of aquatic horror, Jaws, is more about staying out of the water than going in. Will Underwater (directed by William Eubank) change this trend? We can only find out by suiting up and diving in.

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Let’s get this out of the way first; Underwater is effectively Alien plus The Abyss plus Event Horizon, sprinkled with a handful of other sci-fi horror garnishes. If this doesn’t interest you then you may as well stop here but if it does then I should also probably warn you that Underwater is less than the sum of its parts, but we’ll get to that soon enough.

Beyond any of its influences, though, Underwater is very much a Things Go Horribly Wrong film. Indeed, the film only manages a little less than ten minutes before Things Go Horribly Wrong; Kepler 822, a mining station at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, suffers a catastrophic depressurisation which kills many of the crew and leaves the few survivors fighting for their lives in a rapidly worsening situation. Norah Price (Kristen Stewart), an engineer with a Haunted Past, quickly meets up with Lucien (Vincent Cassel), the station captain with a Haunted Past, and miners Nagenda (Mamoudou Athie) and Abel (TJ Miller). Abel quickly reveals himself as the kind of insufferable joker – possibly a coping method for a Haunted Past – that nobody would want to live with on a deep-sea base. Add in Smith (John Gallagher Jnr) and Haversham (Jessica Henwick) as the inevitable couple and that’s us introduced to the cast.

Although not really.

Like Alien, Underwater is very good at introducing us to its environment. Kepler 822 is the kind of industrial facility that would have been cutting edge a few years previously but is now starting to fray at the edges. Corridors are cluttered with cabling and tacked-up corporate safety notices. Fluorescent lamps flicker and crackle as the clatter-chatter of poorly-maintained computers echoes from server rooms. The air is saturated with steam and the strange, booming noises of the abyssal ocean. We know what will happen here and we know it won’t be good. Unlike Alien, however, Underwater is not very good at introducing us to its characters to the extent that it barely bothers. It’s difficult to catch character names, largely due to the film’s muffled dialogue, and none of them have much of a personality beyond Abel being hugely irritating. They all sort-of-not-really know each other, in the ambivalent nodding way that you sort-of-not-really know Lucy from Accounts, in a way that contrasts poorly with the well-oiled camaraderie in Alien’s opening scenes. 

Whether that matters too much is arguable, though. Underwater is much less concerned with the intricacies of character than it is with how these relatively stock characters react to (and try to survive) the ongoing disaster. And this means kit. Lots of kit. Every third line seems to be about escape pods, deep-dive suits and carbon scrubbers in a way that reminds very strongly of The Abyss, although there’s nothing in Underwater quite as memorable as that film’s aerated liquid breathing system. If you’re not invested in Underwater after the first half-hour then the second act section, where the group (and their kit) slowly progress from one base section to another, won’t bring you back in. The scenes on the ocean floor – equally reminiscent of similar deep-sea survival horror in the under-appreciated Soma video game as well as Alien’s trek across the surface of LV426 – are effective but the sheer amount of taking suits off and putting them back on again gets repetitive.

Inevitably, we plod to the final act and the reveal of what has been (at least what might have been) going on all along. Captain Lucien’s haunted backstory is vaguely tied into malevolent corporate goings-on in a pretty ham-fisted manner (A pentagram! On a map!) and the sinister air of Delving Too Deep that pervades Event Horizon, albeit slightly diluted from Event Horizon’s ever-increasing hysteria, comes to the fore. Haversham mutters “we shouldn’t be here” in an ominous way and we’re lead into the kind of finale – a finale facilitated by Price’s inexplicable ability to access and operate every machine on the site – which could allow a sequel but, given Underwater’s lacklustre box office performance, probably won’t. 

Ultimately, the problem with Underwater is one that plagues all horror films: the conflict between the hidden and the revealed. Ironically, this is explicitly confronted in the film when Smith attempts to calm Haversham’s nerves prior to the first sea-walk: “What’s the most frightening part of a roller coaster? Queuing up to get on.” Underwater makes the best use of its claustrophobic opening section by involving us in the crew’s panicked attempts to escape; we are often as confused and disorientated as they are. That can be frustrating as a viewer, at least some of this obfuscation stems from poor cinematography more than intent, but it at least feels tense and realistic. Once we move into closing scenes, though, this murkiness starts to play against the film as we never get to fully witness to the terrifying, sublime revelation that Eubank no doubt intends. There’s lots of sound and fury but, unfortunately, it signifies little as Eubank’s over-use of slow-motion (a tendency which also flawed The Signal, his previous feature) makes the pay-off ponderous and predictable. Most importantly, the big reveal isn’t really any more frightening than the film’s opening premise of being trapped in a rapidly-collapsing bubble six miles underwater.

Yet, even despite all this, I quite enjoyed Underwater. It doesn’t claim to have any deep insights into the nature of horror – it’s very much an action movie that’s wearing a horror movie hat – so it can’t be criticised for not presenting any and, at a brisk 90 minutes, it doesn’t outstay its welcome. I also genuinely loved the wheezing, rust-stained industrial aesthetic of Kepler 822’s claustrophobic interiors and, contrary to much online criticism, Kristen Stewart, like the rest of the cast, does a decent job of padding out the pretty thin piece of character she’s been given.

Underwater isn’t better than any of its influences, not on their own and certainly not combined, and nor is it anything mind-blowing on its own merits. It’s a fun disaster movie, though, and one that’s strangely comforting in its predictability when compared to the disaster movie we’re currently living through.

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By Daniel Pietersen

Daniel Pietersen is a writer of weird fiction and critical non-fiction on horror and horror theory. When not writing articles or preparing conference papers, you will find Daniel still trying to complete Dark Souls 2. Daniel is on Twitter as @pietersender and much of his work can be found through his website.

1 reply on “Underwater review – a fun disaster movie but not a deep horror”

Who could have imagined seeing Kristen Stewart giving us such a performance, worthy of the legendary action women of the eighties? Indeed, whether physically, bodily or emotionally, she gives everything without ever losing the slightest bit of credibility.

Yeah, who could have imagined that? Well, probably the same people who could have anticipated that such an uninhibited and successful B movie would come from the hands of the guy behind The Signal, a scab of sci-fi promising much but delivering little.
In short: not that many people.

But back to Underwater.
First, it is a real pleasure to be entitled to a film which puts no gloves on, which catapults us directly into the heart of the action and never lets us breathe (ahah) for 90 minutes. This time, we won’t be served an interminable blockbuster paralyzed by its intellectual pseudo-ambitions and hiding behind illusions of thematic grandeur its inability to energize its narrative (yes, Nolan and Villeneuve, we’re talking about both of you, don’t go pretending you don’t understand).

But make no mistake: while Underwater doesn’t think in any way that it is what it isn’t, it doesn’t shy away from difficulties either.
Eubank never lets himself be impressed by his illustrious predecessors and assumes the references that feed his film: it inevitably ventures towards Abyss, of course, but it is also inspired by milestones such as Alien / Aliens or Sunshine (or even Gravity). But far from being confined to cinema, Underwater also draws elements from video games (we strongly think of the Dead Space franchise) for its claustrophobic staging.
And above all, Eubank dares something quite incredible and confronts a sacred monster (in the very first sense of the term), a Great Old one before whom everyone tends to shrink: Cthulhu in person.

Better still, Underwater is not content to recycle subjects and approaches that others have tried before him: actually, Eubank sends us some pretty solid images in terms of pure fantasy.
The inert “deep ones” sleeping upside down, with their arms swinging slowly in the sea currents, constitute a truly nightmarish vision, some sort of damned spirits haunting an aquatic circle of hell.
Finally, impossible to forget the magnificent shot of the slender and muscular figure of Stewart facing an ancient god whom she challenges with all the force of her humanity.

Quite a good surprise.

(well, as you most certainly have guessed, English is not my mother tongue. This short critic was originally written in french and I tried to convey it in English with the best of my modest capacities. So, I thank you in advance for you indulgence).

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