Kristen Stewart as Norah Price
Vincent Cassel as Lucien
T.J. Miller as Paul Abel, the jokester of the group
Jessica Henwick as Emily Haversham
John Gallagher Jr. as Liam Smith
Mamoudou Athie as Rodrigo Nagenda
Gunner Wright as Lee Miller
Directed by William Eubank
Humans being hunted by a creature of unknown or terrifying origin has been one of Hollywood’s most successful, and well-traversed, genres since the birth of cinema, going all the way back to the Universal classics of The Wolf Man and Dracula and seeing various evolutions over the years, from Ridley Scott’s groundbreaking Alien to 2018’s critical darling A Quiet Place. One of the best uses of this genre is when a story chooses to try and deliver a thrilling and pulse-pounding affair from start to finish, be it with compelling characters or without, and the Kristen Stewart-led Underwater is a perfectly acceptable entry into this genre.
Co-written by Brian Duffield (The Babysitter) and Adam Cozad (The Legend of Tarzan), the film focuses on Norah Price, the mechanical engineer of Kepler 822, a research and drilling facility operated by Tian Industries and located at the bottom of the Mariana Trench. Norah finds herself in a fight for her life as the facility is rocked by a large earthquake and is nearly completely demolished, causing her and fellow survivors Lucien (Cassel), the Captain of the Kepler, Paul Abel (Miller), the jokester of the group, Emily Haversham (Henwick), a biologist, Liam Smith (Gallagher Jr.), an engineer, and Rodrigo Nagenda (Athie), a fellow colleague of Norah’s that works the day shift, to have to travel to the Roebuck 641, a research facility a mile away. But during their journey, they come to realize the disaster may not be as simple as an earthquake and they may not be alone on the ocean floor.
Rather than open the film introducing its characters and their life aboard the Kepler in a fashion similar to the Sigourney Weaver-led outer space franchise, Underwater throws audiences in head-first into the action as we’re briefly introduced to Norah via a wholly unnecessary narration from Stewart as she brushes her teeth just as the earthquake hits. Jumpstarting the plot with a quick dive into the action actually feels like a proper attention-grabber for audiences, with viewers being put right into the mindset of the characters of frantically trying to determine the situation and how to respond to their actions given the problems. Many movies would want audiences to consider the characters’ overall motivations and personalities before judging their actions, but by introducing us to these characters as the proverbial shit hits the fan, we immediately get to the heart of who these characters are.
The unfortunate part about this is that the characters themselves aren’t really the most compelling or even unique nature, with the only really interesting twists coming in the form of Norah’s versatile knowledge of how to traverse the situation and Emily’s stronger personality than typically displayed of a scientist in a horror situation in film. As with any monster horror film, characters are picked off one by one and given its shorter run time, it does happen in a more rapid nature, which actually saves the film from having to offer any kind of interesting character development or too much screen time for some of its unlikable roles.
Thankfully for the film, its tension and pacing help offset its more lackluster plotting and characters as it truly grips the audience’s attention and never lets go, from its shadows moving in the ocean floor to the brief glimpses of its aquatic threats. Plus, in keeping the film feeling real and authentic, audiences aren’t treated to obligatory moments of sharks or jellyfish or any other generic ocean threat scaring the characters, which may seem like an obvious choice given how deep they are, but with many films choosing entertainment over authenticity, it feels like a nice creative decision.
The creatures themselves are some of the best, and most terrifyingly, designed sea monsters in the subgenre that feel like a beautiful homage to iconic cosmic writer H.P. Lovecraft’s works. Choosing to not show their full appearance, or the range of pain they can induce, feels like a page ripped right out of the Jaws handbook, which helps keep audiences on edge throughout and curious as to their origin. Whether out of a hope to get another film or wanting to keep the mystery all the way to the end, never revealing the true nature of the creatures or how they came to arrive does feel like a more creative decision than offering a simplified explanation.
Though the performances do feel kind of wanting, with Stewart never proving to be as charismatic a lead as she can be and Miller hurling out one-liner after one-liner as is typical for the star, they are at least overwhelmed by Eubank’s stylish direction throughout. His beautiful slow-motion shots keep everything in such a high resolution that every little detail from water particles floating in odd directions to characters being thrown over shallow puddles during explosions help create breathtaking moments.
Underwater may not be the most unique effort in the monster horror genre and its characters are pretty underwhelming, but thanks to incredible direction from Eubank, a chilling atmosphere and gorgeous creature design make this a fun and worthwhile affair for genre enthusiasts.