“What’s the scariest part of a roller coaster? Waiting in line.”
Justin’s rating: Almost out of oxygen — but from screaming, laughing, or sighing?
Justin’s review: There’s a whole variety of reasons behind the movies we pick to watch, and I would wager that good deal of them these days are spur-of-the-moment “hey that looks interesting” picks. Let’s assign streaming as the primary cause.
When it came to picking Underwater, my reasons were tenuous at best. I admired that career mouth-breather Kristen Stewart went with a close-cropped no-nonsense haircut. I liked the idea of “Alien meets The Abyss.” And I’m still rooting for 2020 to have produced a good sleeper hit or two, so why not give it a shot?
Underwater kicks off like a straight-up disaster movie, and I have to say that the opening 15 minutes are fantastic. We’re not even given much time at all to acclimate to a deep sea drilling base situated in the Mariana Trench (logistics? physics? don’t worry about it) before an earthquake blows up a whole bunch of it. Only a handful of crew stay alive, including mechanical engineer Price (Stewart, looking grim from the get-go).
Yet as they struggle to survive — including taking an ill-advised journey out into some of the highest pressure water that humans have ever known — they also discover that there are some vastly weird creatures floating down in the deep. And here it’s when the movie turns into a straight-up horror creature feature starring C’thulu. And I’m not being glib here; it really is C’thulu, just tossed into this movie without a how-do-you-do.
Considering that the setting automatically contributes total isolation, instant death, darkness, and primal fears, it’s not the worst idea for a movie. But the struggle that Underwater has is to sell the unbelievable — old gods just hanging out on the seabed waiting to give us a good scare — and can’t quite land that fishie.
While the tech is cool, what with giant metal diving suits and vast underwater tunnel networks (including a train for some reason), every step of the way we’re asked to buy into this. To buy into the practicality of building such huge structures miles and miles below the surface, of creatures that shouldn’t be able to exist in this amount of atmospheric pressure, of the presence of T.J. Miller (who I thought was Jon Heder for the longest time).
I was all prepared to bag on Stewart for a trademark lack of acting, but she’s actually O.K. here. Not Ellen Ripley, mind you, but she’s functional. The real problem is that the filmmakers shoved us into claustrophobic spaces with Miller and his nonstop chatter. For my money, he’s proof that the odious comic relief role of the 1990s never died — it just went into hibernation to be thawed out for 2020.
Probably the bigger detriment to this movie is that it’s a murky mess of editing. Good sound design and a penchant for jump scares, but trying to figure out what’s going on or where anyone is at a particular moment is difficult. When the lights go out — or when everyone goes outside in the water — you might as well be watching those indecipherable documentaries of subs crawling around on the ocean floor. And when you can’t tell what’s going on, it largely ceases to be scary or suspenseful.
Underwater isn’t a total loss, mind you, but it really needed that certain something to make it pop. Amazing editing, memorable characters, a much better hook… something. And it just doesn’t have it.