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Film Review: “Underwater” Nearly Drowns in Clichés, but Stays Afloat Long Enough to Somewhat Entertain

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | January 9th, 2020

Film poster: “Underwater”

Underwater (William Eubank, 2020) 2 out of 4 stars.

An action thriller that almost drowns in its soaked clichés, Underwater nevertheless manages to hold viewer interest for a good portion of its blessedly taut 95-minute length, largely thanks to competent performances from the stars and an intriguing initial premise that works until the monsters come out. All that CGI and such little payoff has to hurt, especially when it’s the creatures who submerge the affair. Who needs them? It’s tough enough to survive over 6 miles below the surface of the ocean.

We start with Norah (Kristen Stewart, Certain Women), a mechanical engineer on a deepwater drilling rig, who sports a blonde buzz cut and a fixation with running around in her underwear. She’s our (intermittent) narrator, and before we can process her opening platitudes about the ennui that sets in after months below, everything falls apart, literally, the spaceship-like station collapsing around her. As she runs in a panic, she’s joined by Rodrigo (Mamoudou Athie, Patti Cake$), and in just the nick of time they shut down a section door before the hallway outside floods, though they drown two colleagues in the process. Survival exacts a tough price.

On they go, picking up Paul (T.J. Miller, Office Christmas Party), buried in rubble, along the way, before catching up with the captain (Vincent Cassel, The Emperor of Paris) and two others, played by Jessica Henwick (Netflix’s Iron Fist) and John Gallagher Jr. (10 Cloverfield Lane). No one knows what has caused the sudden disintegration of the structure, but nor do they have time to discuss, as a meltdown of the station’s core appears imminent, and their only hope is to cross the ocean floor to another backup drill and use the escape pods there.

Kristen Stewart in UNDERWATER ©Twentieth Century Fox

That task is near impossible as it is, so when the screenwriters and director add aliens into the mix, it not only feels superfluous, but prevents us from enjoying what was, on its own, a scary situation. In addition, the alien design borrows from earlier films like Alien (from which director William Eubank has also cribbed the interiors), Aliens and A Quiet Place, to name just three. Worse, the creatures’ motivation is obscure (and not just because of the depth), since they attack when it suits the dramatic needs of the script, and hold off at other times, content to pose in the background.

We’re treated to two movies shoehorned into one, to the detriment of the better half. Fortunately, Stewart’s capable shoulders are strong enough to carry much of the weight, with her supporting teammates equally capable, though they are all forced to participate in unnecessary dialogue spoken even as they claim they must conserve oxygen (stop with the talking, please, and just move it!). Eubank (The Signal) also proves himself a competent enough director of some of the action scenes, at least those without monsters, and there are a few final surprises that redeem earlier banalities. Underwater may be silly, but it stays afloat just enough to qualify as some kind of guilty pleasure.

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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