Underwater horror elicits a special kind of dread. Some people don’t like space, some don’t like air travel, but I think fear of the ocean depths is a unanimous fear. There’s a lot of potential left on the table there by the film Underwater, which tries to dance between multiple genres and present its own sci-fi spin with a dash of hollow morality.
This is a watchable film for two reasons: theme and Kristen Stewart. Surprisingly the rest of the cast actually shows up (which is not the norm for popcorny projects like this) , and the chemistry – despite some odd script choices – seeps through. I also appreciate that a lot of the groundwork for the setup is done in the opening credits (humanity has drilled arguably too deep into the ocean’s surface), so we can hit the ground running.
Within a few minutes Stewart is literally sprinting through the halls of an underwater lab bursting at the seams, slowly picking up party members along the way. Halfway through the film, we see the creatures that are causing all this havoc up close, which are slowly one-upped in an very Alien-esque fashion. Throughout this whole process, which is sometime arduous, Stewart actually feels genuine and afraid: a testament to her skill as an actress in numerous demanding parts throughout her career (Camp X-Ray and Personal Shopper, to name a few).
At one and a half hours in length, Underwater needs to rush, but is content with lingering in-between its action thriller scenes. We get a few sparing monologues from Stewart’s character that are well-acted but inconsistent, which is in line with the tone of the film. Part of the problem is that it doesn’t really know what it wants to be. With the PG-13 rating it can’t give people the gore-fest they might crave, which is a shame because the creature design has a lot of potential.
Every facet is decent on its own merits (emotional chemistry, thrills, atmosphere), but it all lacks bite. The team walks a lot, gets scared to varying levels of success, then walks some more. The explosive opening tone could have been held throughout, but it appears that the entire script budget went to set design and CGI.
Underwater, on a macro level, is a much more fascinating film than it really is. We get subtle hints at world building and some neat tech, but in the end it manages to settle into the slot of a higher concept but lower impact Crawl.