Underwater wears its love for Alien right on its sleeve. In its opening moments, Underwater features a title card that looks fittingly similar to Ridley Scott’s 1979 classic, and the film’s establishing shot of an underwater drill station reminds of the workmanlike, disheveled Nostromo. Kristen Stewart’s Norah spends plenty of time running around in her underwear like Ripley, the discovery of a new species underwater is oddly familiar, and when you’re seven miles underwater in the Mariana Trench, things start to look as alien as miles away in space. But even with all the Alien homages, Underwater differentiates itself almost immediately, as director William Eubank does away with any slow build of dread and gets right into the action, rarely pumping the brakes.
Underwater doesn’t have time for anything other than action, since the screenplay co-written by Eubank, Adam Cozad, and Brian Duffield don’t bother much with plot or character. The only information disseminated about Norah before all hell breaks loose is that she works on this drill and that she’s willing to save even a spider from a drain. Only a minute or so later though, that spider is blown to shit, along with everything around Norah, as an unexplained burst destroys a large part of the underwater station. Norah soon finds a few other survivors, which include her captain, played by Vincent Cassel, John Gallagher Jr. and… T.J. Miller (Underwater was filmed back in 2017). Norah and her crew must walk two miles of ocean floor to get to a station that could potentially save them. But it doesn’t take long for the crew to realize there’s something sinister with them deep in the ocean.
Underwater keeps character details to a bare minimum – Cassel has a 14-year-old daughter, Norah had a relationship that ended poorly before taking this job, etc. – just enough to give the audience something to latch onto. Weirdly, it’s not missed, and it would be difficult to find a place for such development to come up naturally in this type of story.
But despite Underwater’s strength being its nonstop action, Eubank’s directing does at times make this a weakness. Eubank doesn’t know how to present any sense of real location. Along for the journey, all the audience can really discern is that they’re in this indeterminable tunnel, or going even deeper underwater, for some reason. It’s genuinely hard to tell just how far along on this journey these characters are, unless Cassel drops a hint like, “We’re almost halfway there!” The moving from action scene to action scene can be thrilling, but the vagueness of distance in this adventure is constantly in question.
Also strange is how poorly the sound in Underwater seems to be mixed. With constant explosions and rushing waters, the dialogue can often be hard to understand. At the very least, it makes Miller’s crummy one-liners get lost in the mix.
Stewart is quite good here as the action star, and makes us care about her character without doing much at all. Through small actions in the throes of the panic, we see Norah is compassionate towards others and always puts others above herself. This is presented naturally through the action, yet Stewart’s performance sells this idea is the few moments of relative calm. Stewart’s performance elevates Underwater slightly higher than what one expects from a mid-budget shelved-for-years, released-in-January film.
For a film released this early in the year, Underwater, with a solid Stewart performance and a tone that feels almost like Alien meets Cloverfield, Underwater is a simple, fun surprise to get through this month’s movie doldrums.