'Underwater' follows the crew of an undersea drilling station who are forced to flee their laboratory following an earthquake and encounter more than they bargained for when the route to their evacuation pods is lined with murderous monsters. It falls on Norah (Kristen Stewart), a level-headed mechanical engineer, to lead the crew to safety.
For a movie titled 'Underwater', this is a surprisingly dry endeavour. The script is blunt, basic and workmanlike, hitting each predictable beat with dialogue so bland it could have been generated by AI. Even the attempts to inject comic relief, courtesy of TJ Miller's character Peter, feel really tonally jarring: His brash, slightly sour quips about his 'flat-chested elven friend' Norah follow a melancholy opening scene in which the latter gently muses about loss while rescuing a spider. It feels like there's a real clash of sensibilities at work between the script by Brian Duffield and Adam Cozad and the direction by William Eubank.
While Vincent Cassel plays the designated captain, and has a suitably clichéd tragic backstory, Kristen Stewart's Norah emerges as the protagonist, and is the closest the film gets to having a real heart or soul, or someone to root for. Scenes which find her solitary and contemplative bookend the film (and again at the midpoint, as she explores an abandoned drilling station), occasional moments of stylish and subtle direction which highlight Stewart's talent as an actress. Unfortunately the shallow script does her, and her castmates, no favours and there's not enough going on to keep it afloat.
Predictable plotting aside, it is at least worth noting that the different sea monsters encountered by the crew are well-designed, although those of us who were hoping never to see a big-screen tentacle again after a deluge of eldritch squids in 2017 will be disappointed. Even this creature design is squandered somewhat by the dimly-lit, underwater murkiness the film filters through. Eubank is clearly not accustomed to choreographing action scenes, never mind those taking place underwater - it's genuinely difficult to tell what's happening, and to whom, and the relative position of characters to each other, at times.
There’s also some muddled environmental messaging, with the monsters’ attack being perceived as a kind of retaliation against man-made destruction of the ocean environment. This might have been more effective had the climax of the movie not involved … even more man-made destruction of the ocean environment, and while there’s a suggestion the drilling will now cease, it does play rather like they just needed to end the movie with a big sacrificial explosion, for the sake of it.
Led by a strong performance from Kristen Stewart, ‘Underwater’ initially plays like ‘Alien’ at sea, and presents some genuinely creepy deep-sea monsters. However, its horrors are drowned out by shallow script, slight characterisation, and tonal confusion.