DIRECTED BY: WILLIAM EUBANK/2020
When I reviewed William Eubank’s last film, The Signal, I opined on the phrase “what happened?” feeling that Eubanks threw away the good will he built up for the first 2/3rds of that film by squandering the ending. I mentioned that his cinematography background and directorial effort in The Signal showed promise…at least enough to see what he could do with a better script and larger budget. His new film is the chance to make good on such flashes of potential. What he delivers in his new film Underwater is a solid step in the right direction, but the film is not good enough to keep from drowning beneath its own shortcomings and self-inflicted wounds.
A 20th-Century Fox production, Underwater has been languishing for 3 years before getting its official January 2020 release date. Now that its emerged from the depths of Davy Jones’ locker following Disney’s takeover of 20th Century Fox, it gets an unceremonious January release date, where it could make a few bucks before being promptly forgotten. Overall, Underwater is a pretty simple form of escapism that borrows heavily from Ridley Scott’s 1979 masterpiece, Alien, only with nothing really to say. That said, its not a complete waste of time, and with a solid cast and solid cinematography, Underwater almost stays afloat.
Kristen Stewart is Norah, our narrator, and main protagonist. She is an engineer who lives 6 miles under the surface of the ocean in a subterranean laboratory operated by a drilling company in the Mariana Trench, in the western Pacific Ocean. One minute she is brushing her teeth, wondering how a spider in the bathroom happened to have made it down to the lab so deep under the ocean’s surface, when a massive earthquake rocks the laboratory, threatening to bring it all crashing down around her. She runs for cover and soon meets up with other workers at the lab, played by T.J. Miller, Jessica Henwick, Vincent Cassel, John Gallagher Jr., Mamoudou Athie, and Gunner Wright.
Any backstory is provided during the credits in the form of rapid fire headlines from newspaper and magazine articles of another corporate entity whose greed and ambition has led them to drill too deep. As our team of survivors seek to find a way back up to the surface, they discover they are being stalked by something much more dangerous than the structural damage caused by the earthquake. The film soon becomes a tale of survival, down to the last frame.
Kristen Stewart pretty much carries this film, along with support from Vincent Cassel, on her shoulders. Despite her best efforts, the film never rises above the depths its mired in. Since it was first filmed, a lot has changed in the world, especially the #MeToo movement. Underwater comes off as a badly dated throwback film when it was commonplace for the female lead to spend most of the film running around in her underwear and sports bra, clutching at her chest with questionable camera angles capturing it all. Its also a film where TJ Miller, who in December of 2017, after filming was accused of a pattern of sexual violence against women, going back to his time in college could be cast as the comic relief. These realities, along with the recycled plot lines, will work to fully sink this film.
Despite this, William Eubank has learned some lessons since directing The Signal. His pacing on Underwater is much better and he largely keeps the film moving forward. There are still problems with closing the film, especially when it comes to the creature they are all running from. Very little is explained, and while the climatic ending raises the stakes for Stewart and company, it is too easily resolved when compared to previous encounters that they have with the mysterious creature lurking in the depths. Eubanks’ underwater scenes, given his background in cinematography, are also effective as he seeks to create a suffocating tension nearly 7 miles under the sea.
While William Eubank is swimming the right direction, Underwater is still a victim of flat endings, questionable cast members, dated and unhealthy treatment of its female leads through the camera’s “male-gaze”, as well as no development of the mysterious thing that is on their trail. Unlike Alien, the corporation that serves as the ultimate big-bad isn’t given much treatment in the script other than the catchy headlines that open and close the film. In the end, that may just water under the proverbial bridge as Underwater never really rises to the surface.