Movie Review: Underwater
Kristen Stewart is a revelation. When the world around us seems to be obsessed with artifice Stewart’s celebrity persona seems to reject all of it. She seems to care only about making art and giving good performances. She has zero fucks to give and frankly that’s how I feel most days. That could be the chief reason she ended up with a deep sea horror movie that was released in the middle of January, a notoriously low time for genre programming. I didn’t see underwater coming. It had very little hype, was not helmed by a prestige director, and frankly took place six miles below sea level. In my mind I thought to myself “if I wanted to to see Leviathan I would have watched the Blu-ray”. When the action starts five minutes into this movie, I thought I might be VERY wrong about Underwater and after the ninety five minute run time the smile on my face confirmed it. Maybe, just maybe, I loved this movie a little bit.
Norah (Kristen Stewart) is a mechanical engineer that works for a company that is drilling the bottom of the Mariana Trench. We never fully get why or what they are drilling for and the quickness of the story necessitates that we don’t spend a lot of time fleshing out the corporate backstory. There is an earthquake at the facility and Norah and a host of the other workers including the captain (Vincent Cassel) must figure out a way to survive the rapidly imploding infrastructure. To complicate matters as they move from one facility to the other they realize it may not have been an earthquake that caused the initial emergency.
As mentioned before Stewart is absolutely channeling other great female performances in science fiction/horror films. Her performance will undoubtedly get compared to Sigourney Weavers portrayal of Ripley. I think those comparisons are justified. This movie asks Stewart to do a little more in the role however. As we get bits and pieces of her backstory throughout the film we get an emotional depth the Alien franchise never seemed interested in exploring. When those emotional beats are combined with Vincent Cassel’s own wounded Captain the movie transcends genre and in that way has far more heart than other horror movies I have seen this year. Stewart plays a mechanical engineer who is calm under pressure but also capable of getting her hands dirty. She is a woman performing a role traditionally given to men who does what she needs to do to survive. In that way the creatures outside of the drilling platform may reflect some of the experiences she has had to contend with inside the building. A final note on the cast. TJ Miller was in this movie. He was fine. It looks like every TJ Miller performance throughout time. I am a little tired of it.
Underwater returns back to the post industrial late stage capitalism of the Nostromo. The company that is drilling on the sea floor clearly cuts corners and is less interested in maintaining all of its quarters and computers then increasing its bottom line. I am down for that aesthetic. Everything works a little bit and but not like it should. Sure some of that might be the earthquake but you get the distinct impression the characters know how to navigate these systems breaking down because it happens so often. Underwater has a passively evil corporation. Coupled with some conjecture at the end of the film, I think there may be some sort of environmental argument that the movie is trying to make but Director William Eubank isn’t hitting us over the head with it. Our corporation is evil by accident but as often is the case nature does not give a shit about our intentions.
The pacing of the movie was a highlight. The action starts within five minutes of the film and really never lets up. It doesn’t allow you time to breath and while Underwater uses a few jump scares it allows the environment to create the tension. A series of creaks, or groans from the bulwark of the building, a slowly cracking glass, or the slow pulse of an alarm help push the characters and the plot along. We can never stay in one place very long and as a result we never get comfortable. The only slow moments of the movie happen outside the building as our crew move along the sea floor. It didn’t take anything away from the rest of the film but I could see how the fast pace of the rest of the film makes these moments look and feel slower.
Look, I like a good creature. Especially weird squiggly monsters. This movie has weird squiggly monsters in spades. They are big and small, both slimy and thorny. They also almost look human from time to time which makes some of the reveals in the middle of movie even spookier. As we move into the final act the monsters feel much more like the myriad of different monsters in Cloverfield than they do feel like Xenomorphs in the ocean which some have compared it to. I won’t go much into the final act as I don’t want to spoil anything, but its bonkers, and visually stunning, and exhilarating in what it attempts and mostly accomplishes. A couple of final digs at the corporation right before the credits helped situate the movie and wrapped things up nicely.
Underwater is out today and its my favorite movie of 2020. The year is only a week old but it already has some highs and some lows. My lesson, trust Kristen Stewart she has earned it. Lets hope we get more movies like this one. Fast pace, great monsters, powerful performances, and shitty corporations. More of that please.
Tyler has been the editor in chief of Signal Horizon since its conception. He is also the Director of Monsters 101 at Truman State University a class that pairs horror movie criticism with survival skills to help middle and high school students learn critical thinking. When he is not watching, teaching or thinking about horror he is the Director of Debate and Forensics at a high school in Kansas City, Missouri.