William Eubank ('Love', 'The Signal') is a director whose previous two science fiction films could be summed up thusly: "surprisingly good, given the low-budget". 'Underwater' is his third film and first big money effort but has languished on the shelf since 2017 due to the Fox/Disney merger - it's actually the final film to be released under the 20th Century Fox name before Walt Disney Studios changed its name to 20th Century Studios.
The film's storyline is quickly unspooled over the first 15 minutes: Tian Industries intends to drill seven miles to the bottom of the Mariana Trench for resources, a large earthquake hits, and a section of the Kepler 822 Station starts to suffer a catastrophic breach from the pressure.
A mechanical engineer named Norah (Kristen Stewart) and a station crewman named Rodrigo (Mamoudou Athie) scramble through the grimy, mucky wreckage. They find more survivors: Paul (T.J. Miller), a tattooed oddball who carries around a stuffed bunny for good luck; Emily (Jessica Henwick), a biology intern; engineer and Emily's partner Smith (John Gallagher Jr); and the station's dutiful captain, Lucien (Vincent Cassel).
With no escape pods left, Lucien recommends that they put on pressurised suits and walk one mile across the ocean floor to the abandoned Roebuck Station 641 - the film does a strong job of showcasing both the nearly suffocating claustrophobia of tight spaces and the vast emptiness of the environment.
Unfortunately, awakened by the incessant drilling, a race of spiny, gooey deep-sea Lovecraftian lifeforms with stretchy jaws have come out of the far depths.
As someone who unabashedly loves movies about weird stuff happening underwater - 'Sphere,' 'Deep Star Six,' and 'Leviathan' - Eubank's latest film was seemingly tailor-made for me.
The characters are simple archetypes - the captain with a tragic past, the comic relief, the useless IT guy, the scared rookie, and the cannon fodder. Kristen Stewart, her hair buzzed short and dyed blond, makes a great Ripley-esque action hero, complete with high-top sneakers and tight-fitting overalls.
Eubank keeps the narrative brief and to the point, pitting his rowdy, tech lingo-spouting characters against a series of obstacles: a crawl through a corpse-littered tunnel, a walk along the ocean floor, defective oxygen converters, and the constant threat of explosive decompression.
While the faster scenes are too chaotic and murky, what makes 'Underwater' so unique - and why subaquatic films usually struggle - is the literal sluggishness of its other action sequences. Characters descend elevators or ride brutally slow trams. The crew buzzes around in small robotic pods, their pace slowed by the water. That might not sound particularly fun, but Eubank effectively captures every bump and turn; it's a realistically awkward depiction of deep-sea travel.
Could 'Underwater' have benefited from being a one woman show, K-Stew versus monsters versus her own haunted past? Maybe.
'Underwater' homages a number of films and owes its biggest debts to stuff like 'Alien: Resurrection', a film which plays like a collection of intriguing, half-formed ideas joined to the incongruous imagination of French fabulist Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Like James Cameron's 'The Abyss', Eubank snakes his camera through the behemoth of a cavernous underwater drilling platform. Like Neil Marshall's 'The Descent', it features strong female characters banding together to battle swarms of blind mutants beneath the Earth's surface.
'Underwater' also owes something to video games, mostly 'Bioshock', using costume (armoured, steampunk-inspired atmospheric diving suits), environment (devastated but littered with clues) and sound design - like the prerecorded announcements that loop through station corridors - for both exposition and irony.
Still, a handful of things took me out of the film, a melodramatic voiceover being chief among them, as well as the aforementioned incoherently fast action scenes. It also feels less like a William Eubank film ('Love' and 'The Signal' were heavy on flashbacks and the interior of the mind), and more like a collage of his influences. Could 'Underwater' have benefited from being a one-woman show, like J.D. Dillard's terrific merman horror film, 'Sweetheart'? K-Stew versus tentacle monsters versus her own haunted past? Maybe.
Tense and fun, with cool-looking creatures and jump scares that aren't too obnoxious, 'Underwater' may be disposable in the long run - but it's also an entertaining and unpretentious true Hollywood B-movie that is worth a visit to the cinema.