A shallow but satisfying creature feature that splits the difference between classic disaster movies and Lovecraftian horror, William Eubank’s “Underwater” is a film out of its time. For one thing, it was shot almost three years ago, back when bonafide disaster artist T.J. Miller was still vaguely cast-able (i.e. before he became so toxic that Mucinex fired him as the company’s spokes-snot). For another, it’s an expensive, original, multiplex-ready B-movie in an era when virtually anything with an $80 million budget has to be about superheroes or new subscribers. In fact, the project’s anachronistic nature is so pronounced that even its profoundly screwed characters can sense it bubbling up around them.
“Underwater” is gasping for air from the moment it starts. Set almost seven miles below the ocean surface aboard a deep-sea drilling complex that’s exclusively populated by hot millennials, the movie dives right into the abyss with nary a hint of set-up. At its center is Norah (Kristen Stewart), a mechanic at the bottom of the world. Sporting a short-cropped blonde dye that illuminates the screen with Lori Petty vibes, the actress gives Norah such palpable anxiety that the movie is never able to normalize its nightmare scenario; she’s just as terrified (if a bit more capable) as any of us would be down there, and that unfiltered vulnerability allows “Underwater” to remain scary during even its silliest moments. Spending most of her scenes in the coiled, rattlesnake-like defensive crouch that she’s perfected in various indies over the last few years, Stewart adds much-needed detail to a one-dimensional role. All we know for sure about Norah is that no one takes a job in hell unless they’re hiding from something.
“On the ocean floor, you lose all sense of time,” she tells us in the voiceover narration that Adam Cozad and Brian Duffield use to plug the holes in their seaworthy script. But for Norah, who’s only kept afloat by cynicism and self-sacrifice, that feeling of oblivion might be more of a feature than a bug. Who is she running from? What is her employer hoping to find down there? Why don’t movies like this still let us spend 40 minutes chilling with Yaphet Kotto and Harry Dean Stanton before the shit hits the fan?
There are definitive answers to at least two of those three questions, but don’t hold your breath waiting for them to arrive. Instead, brace for a dissonant symphony of ominous creaks, mysterious animal noises, and sudden THUNKS! like the one that sends 90 zillion pounds of Pacific Ocean water flooding into Norah’s sealab bathroom; the movie is hardly five minutes old before its shaky heroine has escaped certain death, sacrificed a handful of her hapless colleagues, and found herself trapped in the single most hostile environment you can find on planet Earth. “Underwater” is paced at a relentless clip that doesn’t give you a chance to think, let alone get bored.
The opening credits contain some very obvious clues that the flooding might have been caused by “anomalies” of some kind, and hard evidence of some “‘20,000 Leagues Under the Sea’ shit” (as Miller’s typically buffoonish character describes it) comes soon after Norah meets up with a small group of survivors. Their ranks include a tortured captain (tough guy Vincent Cassel acting against type), a winsome engineer played by the ever-dependable John Gallagher Jr., and a mild-mannered staffer named Rodrigo (Mamoudou Athie, the only black cast member in a relatively old-fashioned horror movie that can sometimes be too attached to outmoded genre tropes). Everyone is just red meat waiting for the slaughter, but the pedigree of this ensemble is strong enough to make you suspend disbelief when they strap themselves into massive armored suits, step into the void, and start getting mauled to death one well-telegraphed jump-scare at a time.
If the film’s plot couldn’t be any more predictable, its claustrophobic atmosphere and nightmare mechanics help keep things afloat. A nervous ruin of flooded hallways, calm voice alarms, and thin glass that’s buried in enough ocean to pop a human skull like a pimple, the imploding Kepler Station is a marvelous backdrop for blockbuster schadenfreude. The sad bastards of “Underwater” are boned in such a complete and visceral way that the movie can practically coast on the power of its circumstances — and that’s before Eubank introduces gliding CG beasties into the mix.
In fact, things are so grim down there that the film is often at a loss to explain how any of its characters are still alive. Several of the most harrowing scenes simply end with a blunt cut to black, only for the action to resume a few moments later with the lucky survivors having magically arrived at their next destination.
By the third time that happens, it’s hard to shake the feeling that the movie is being guided along rails like a theme park ride; while the story evokes everything from “Alien” and “The Abyss” to “Sphere” and “The Descent,” the raw functionality of its telling ultimately positions “Underwater” closer to Disneyland’s “Tower of Terror” than anything else (and thanks to Disney’s recent acquisition of 20th Century Fox, this is technically a Disney joint). It’s as if Eubanks’ film only has 90 minutes of oxygen in the tank and needs to reach the surface by any means necessary, no matter how many tantalizing ideas it leaves unexplored.
Spurred on by its murky spectacle — and a third-act twist that raises the stakes in a very enjoyable way — “Underwater” always seems like it’s about to drown in its own narrative disinterest, and yet it somehow finds a way to keep moving forward. Sure, a hilarious amount of information is dumped into the closing credits. And yes, the movie is so eager to end things that it hurriedly settles for the first moral it can find (single people don’t deserve to live). And, most disconcerting of all, it does leave you with the dark feeling that perhaps “Underwater” should have been connected to a cinematic universe of some kind, if only because the margins don’t make sense for Disney to keep making disposable one-offs like this. If ever a movie should have secretly been a “Cloverfield” project, this is it.
But the monsters are gnarly, the sets and effects are spectacular chum for the imagination, and the cast is able to elevate a damp programmer into a dizzy genre pleasure. “Underwater” is fun even when you can’t fathom what must have happened behind the scenes during post-production, and it’s scary enough to make James Cameron look in the rear-view mirror of his sub the next time he’s digging around on the ocean floor. Once upon a time, all a movie had to do was make people afraid to go in the water. Sadly, times have changed.
Disney will release “Underwater” in theaters on January 10.