Underwater, 2020

20th Century Fox

Lovecraftian visions of Clingers and the Behemoth.

There’s a comfort in cynicism. There is a lot less to lose.”

– Norah Price

Alright, Underwater is one of those films where the action starts only ten minutes after the title and the production houses vanity plates have been flashed on the screen, and the monologue has started. The thick metal of the rig ruptures and seawater starts to crash in even before our Ellen Ripley, our female protagonist, our very own Kristen Stewart as the taciturn Norah Price, the mechanical engineer of the ship has had the time to actively think to herself, trying hard to determine if she’s dreaming (brushing her teeth) or if she’s awake. Just like in Moon, 2009; like how Sam Bell (a stellar turn from Sam Rockwell) has started to think only a few minutes into the complex, challenging preconceived notions gone to hell, and a proverbial search for identity sci-fi film.

I’m not comparing, but only saying that Norah is a chemical engineer by groves of Academe, who can hot-wire the dog on the hatches, to the pressurized chambers, to open them up. She’s also someone who arbitrates the situation, the circumstances and is shown to contemplate, while the others are panicking, well, almost all of the ones left after the underwater rig has been hit and damaged and fucking cracked open like a soda can, all 60,000 tonnes of metal and iron. Almost all, but Captain W. Lucien (played as an afterthought by the César Award (French equivalent for the Oscar Award) winner Vincent Cassel (Irréversible, 2002).

Director William Eubank (The Signal, 2014) does not want the viewers to feel respite, not one bit and keeps the action flowing, keeps the breaches appearing in the underwater station, which shatters, the water pressure forms cracks in places and shoots like a hot geyser, then rises back toward the surface by convection through porous and fractured metal of the huge-ass drilling rig. He makes sure that every time our crew enters cramped up spaces removing debris, discovering corpses, the framework of the acts is silken and the collision of water is visually lustrous, with the use of the Matrix-slo-mo, however, it all happens so fast and with such urgency, that the film fails to explain itself much. But does it need to explain itself? Especially after the Godzilla like opening where flashes of newspaper archives are shown to us in a microfiche. I mean we all know what the Mariana Trench is and we also know that drilling that deep will indeed cause hydrothermal venting, making them biologically more productive, and will also disturb complex communities hidden there, life forms that have evolved by the chemicals dissolved in the vent fluids and what have you.

We know that, don’t we?

We also know that director William Eubank is a huge Aliens, 1986 fanboy. For it doesn’t take long before the surviving crew members are putting on the heavy-duty pressurized suits for the long walk, across the ocean floor to Roebuck 641, an abandoned facility, in hopes of finding escape pods. Just like the Colonial Marines in Aliens. There’s also a nod to the original Alien film from 1979, when a creature (of the Cthulhu Mythos kind) suddenly bursts out of a dead body and straight into the camera (Kane’s industriously Giger headgear). It is all unremittingly intense but without a solid script, or a floor plan, the survivors are mere genre-caricatures and it does not give our cast members new emotional dimensions to explore; only action and running from something terrible, complete to the camera tilted upwards, towards the vents, as the xenomorph… I mean, whatever is out there, slithering its way through those, making clanking noises and the crew looking up, just like the marines, and wondering what the fuck are they in for?

This better not be some 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea shit.”

Paul Abel has the funniest lines in a film replete with trite dialogue

We’re all mad here” is scribbled at the back of the suit, on a tiny cylinder near the oxygen tank, that Paul Abel (T.J. Miller) puts on when it’s time for a stroll some eleven thousand meters underwater; and not just any underwater, not just your everyday, garden-variety deep sea but the mommy of them all, the Mariana Trench. And here, in Underwater we’re six miles deeper into the Trench And now that we all know what the Mariana Trench is (you must’ve Googled by now), we know how real and terrifying the threat is. Just like how the faulty helmet gives and it results in a scene that resembles Ensign Justin, from the brilliant Event Horizon) intentionally opening the plug door and decompressing the tunnel, and just when his eyeballs are about to pop out, Medical Technician Peter pulls him in, but it’s too late, Justin is gone.

Anyhow, for all its misgivings, for the lack of a proper plot and a lazy & derivative screenplay by Brian Duffield & Adam Cozad, the picture does manage to intrigue quite a bit; this is Aliens-Lite, or perhaps Abyss-Ice. For everything that it doesn’t have to boast, there is a scene or a half to perhaps counterbalance the state of affairs – a glimpse in the dark, exploding helmeted faces, being chased by something, of which the viewer was only able to catch sight of before it dove back into the water.
Underwater is not all hopeless and boring (yes boring), nor is it painfully and unremittingly intense, and yes, it drags (it could be the buoyancy, but my chips are still on the uninspired screenplay & lack of centralized characters) and we, the keen viewers do not necessarily care all that much for the survivors and their departing speeches and a stuffed teddy bear.

Put the bunny back in the box

Cameron Poe from Con Air

It’s a pity for an eighty million dollar film to be cast aside after it has been berated; for it to be dismissed in favor of a (any) less expensive but an enthralling survival-horror tale. I personally have always had a soft spot for films taking place under the water, the deep sea, the complete, consuming dark, and the loneliness of being a crew on an offshore drilling rig. The Abyss is a favorite and so are films like DeepStar Six. 1989 (we can witness a diminutive nod to the latter when we watch a doll covered in an ancient dive suit, much like the creature from the video game, Bioshock). Plus, I lost count (with a total of five characters that is never a good thing) of the survivors, who kept appearing and then disappearing at whims of a faulty script, the film is diluted by implausibility, especially at the time of the first big reveal. The second (bigger reveal) made the jaw drop only to have it shut tight since it also gave away the predictable ending (the film’s predictability and hackneyed dialogue, the only inventive aspect of the film is the design of the monster).
Since when did the gothic Stewart become this sacrificing? Now I feel bad for the actor; she never actually got a chance to shine on her own. Well, not yet.

Further, the film mimics Ridley Scott and James Cameron competently enough, but does not have to offer anything on its own, except for the slick visual triggers (which, are now commonplace); it ricochets the exposition and dashes forward in a frenzy that is only made possible when the screenplay refuses to move the audience. Fair enough, use Dutch angles, shots from inside the helmet to stress on the claustrophobia and break a part of the rig and a leg every few minutes and we have Underwater, underwhelming at best. It misses being enthralling by that deceased expression on Stewart’s face, a fine talent thrown into the mix, and then to waste (Cassel) and Tim Miller (the only guy with genuinely funny lines) being one of the first casualties of the pedestrian plot.

William Eubank is learning. He lacks vision here but he’s learning. I can tell by the way we are first shown a creature exiting a corpse and then, towards the middle, Norah tearing her way out of a creature that has swallowed her whole. He tries to come full circle here, perhaps not realizing that there’s still about forty minutes to go. The timing is off as well. It could be living in such conditions, with all facilities available and they stop working and all hell breaks loose. Where’s the flaming, flashing, crashing, crackling blow-’em-up of a survivalist-horror film like Underwater? Where’s the tension, the suspense, the dialogue that becomes a character when Paxton shouts, “Game over man, game over!”? Where is all that? Well, as I said Eubank is learning and he better do it quick, since the postmodern, post nCov world does not have time for lackluster, only for repeated protracted attacks on the senses. That’s the new form of entertainment, like it or not and Underwater falls way short.

Underwater brings credible camaraderie to the scenario without quite matching the vivid chemistry of Aliens (from which, it has borrowed so much) and its best progeny; with such a claustrophobic survival tale ahead of them.
What can I say? Just that the depth of the Mariana Trench still scares the living daylights out of me and that is the only one thing going for the film, that and the stylized slo-mo, and oh; the big(ger) reveal towards the end.


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