Underwater, directed by William Eubank, recalls the film landscape of the late 1990s. Studios were pumping out mid-budget sci-fi/horror films taking place in aquatic settings, most of them failing to rise to the surface of the box office. Films like Sphere and Deep Rising were released only to quickly disappear from theaters. While films like Jaws, Open Water, and The Shallows were able to drown audiences with the violent mysteries of the deep rising up to chomp toes, there really hasn’t been much interest in the potential mayhem at the bottom of the ocean. Underwater doesn’t try to be original. You’ve got your heroine. You’ve got your horrible comic relief. You have jump scares and casualties. Still, Underwater is an occasionally surprising and mildly entertaining film that proves that Kristen Stewart can excel at anything, even horror films.
Norah (Kristen Stewart), a mechanical engineer at a marine laboratory, just wants to brush her teeth and go to bed. She gazes into the mirror, wondering if it is night, day, or if time even exists underwater. When a violent earthquake rips through the station, Norah and the remaining survivors must flee the rapidly failing vessel. Their only safety lies in making it to another station a mile away. Equipped with damaged gear, they venture out to take the long walk. When they step out of the relative safety of their former home, they find the earthquake has unleashed strange and monstrous creatures from the depths of the sea.
Underwater doesn’t have much new to offer to audiences. Darkly-lit scenes of cautious characters walking into the unknown are mildly unnerving but not exactly riveting. Where Underwater really succeeds is how director William Eubank is able to make the most of his production limitations. For a PG-13 film, there are some truly impressive deaths. Ocean pressure and monster strength are shown to amazing and gruesome effects. It is the first PG-13 horror film in a long, long time that didn’t feel like the audience was being short-changed the carnage they expected.
No time is spent trying to understand the creatures. There is no elaborate plan to defeat them. Their species isn’t even given a name. As a result, Underwater feels less a “haunted house” film like Alien and more like a survival adventure film with an unexpected Lovecraftian touch.
Kristen Stewart is solid as Norah, a character, unlike anything she has done before. While she might be a mechanical engineer, her character never succumbs to any real heroine cliches we might expect. She doesn’t have a secret sharpshooter ability. She isn’t a brilliant hacker who uses her skills to defeat the monsters. Norah is just another member of the staff. She is able to show her skills at engineering a few times, but there is no feeling that she was seemingly built to survive this whole situation.
Parallels to Ellen Ripley in Alien aren’t totally baseless, although there is never a moment when Stewart’s Norah has to outwit or overpower the monsters. She is never helpless and also never indestructible. She is about as real of a person as you could expect in an aquatic monster movie. While Stewart does spend much of the film in various degrees of underwear, the camera is never leery. In comparison, 2005’s Zathura having 14-year old Stewart in boy shorts feels infinitely more uncomfortable.
The rest of the cast is relatively unimportant. You will be hard-pressed to remember their names or any real character motivations beyond survival. The only exception is T.J. Miller as Paul, the constant comedic relief. Every “joke” he utters is unnecessary and unfunny. (I strained to hear if there was any reaction to his lines from the opening night audience, and I think there might have been one laugh the entire movie.) Miller’s casting and the filming of Underwater pre-dates his fake bomb threats and the claims against him of sexual assault and work misconduct, which have almost totally sullied this once respected funnyman. His presence is jarring and his character is the weakest part of the film. Underwater didn’t need comedic relief and it certainly didn’t need Miller.
Underwater isn’t a total success, but it is far more engaging than expected. It doesn’t breathe new life into the deep sea terror genre, but it does prove that PG-13 horror isn’t a total lost cause and that Stewart can excel at almost anything. Underwater will no doubt find its home on basic cable for an entertaining weekend afternoon watch. It might not be an Olympic swimmer, but it definitely stays afloat.