“Underwater” makes no attempt to hide the fact that it’s “Alien” in the Mariana Trench, an ocean-floor (instead of an outer-space) monster movie starring Kristen Stewart instead of Sigourney Weaver. Immediately, one wants to know two things: Is the monster any good? Is K-Stew any good?
The good news is, Kristen Stewart’s got the charisma and acting chops to elevate any material well above the level it has any right to exist at. Which means “Underwater” is watchable.
The bad news is—just barely so. The worse news is, the vast ocean-bottom murk probably can only be somewhat done justice to by seeing it on the big screen. But I’m here to tell you that for an $18.50 ticket, you’re automatically, immediately, slammed up against the point of diminishing returns.
Norah (Stewart) is a mechanical engineer on a team of researchers in a massive research lab that’s also part of a deep-sea oil-drilling rig situated seven miles down in the Mariana Trench. That’s always a sketchy place to be lately, in movies. Remember “The Meg”? That 70-foot Jaws? The Meg came out of the Mariana Trench too. According to Hollywood pseudoscience.
Suddenly, there’s an earthquake! The lab springs numerous leaks. There’s also the distinct possibility of that thing they call a “core meltdown” in such movies. Gotta get out quick. Giant diving suits are donned, and the plan is to stroll across the ocean floor—for a mile—to another functional pod of the sprawling lab, and make a surface bid.
What’s the water pressure like seven miles down? Let’s google that, shall we? What does Live Science say? “8 tons per square inch (703 kilograms per square meter). This is more than 1,000 times the pressure felt at sea level, or the equivalent of having 50 jumbo jets piled on top of a person.”
Sure! Any diving suit—even industrial strength—won’t pop like a plastic bag with 50 Boeing 747s sitting on it. So we’ve hereby established that the nonsense factor is high. Now let’s focus on suspending our disbelief and having ourselves a fun, adventure-thriller.
Here’s the crew of stereotypes: We’ve met Norah, who as a seasoned underwater-station pro, while not exactly icy-calm under pressure (pun intended), got the ability to think on her feet. Then there’s stoic captain-man (Vincent Cassel); scaredy-cat science grad student (Jessica Henwick); her boyfriend (John Gallagher Jr.); and the wisecracking, graveyard-humor-spewing cowboy (T.J. Miller). Oh, and lastly, the ubiquitous, he-dies-first, black dude (Mamoudou Athie).
Normally, you’d get a bit more time to hang out with the crew and get to know them, so you can care about them, but “Underwater” revs the throttle on the action right out of the starting gate and gets straight into action-movie problem-solving.
You know the dialogue type: Hey! You okay? Yeah, I’m good! Where’s so-and-so?! I don’t see him! I’m running low on oxygen! Hang in there, just a little further now! Listen to me: You’re not gonna die, okay? Uh-oh, what was that????!
There is much thrashing about in claustrophobic, debris-filled tunnels, hissing of closing pod-doors, near-drownings, near-miss monster-chomps, the ever-present possibility of getting fried via electrocution, and general murky mayhem, all more or less following the old “Alien” blueprint.
Speaking of which, here’s Kristen Stewart’s Norah, based on the blueprint of Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley: She’s got a buzz cut (“Alien 3”), runs around frenetically, doing action-movie stuff in her skivvies (“Alien”), and packs a big (flare gun) weapon (“Aliens”).
The main difference, though, is that part of the reason Sigourney Weaver was so successful in “Alien” is because she wasn’t a star yet. Stewart’s already a massive star; and so while there is a win here, it’s less about the dynamics of the story, and more about enjoying seeing K-Stew following in Emily Blunt’s footsteps and handling her first action role like a boss.
Anyway—the monster. I like this monster about as much as the one Emily Blunt dealt with in “A Quiet Place.” It’s low CGI and unsatisfying. You’d think they’d want to put more effort into making a more disturbing monster. When somebody designs a good one, the movie immediately turns into a franchise that rolls along for decades. Think: “Alien,” “Predator,” “Terminator,” “Godzilla,” “King Kong,” and so on. If you don’t have a good monster, you can’t name your monster movie after it.
Plus, the main reason for the existence of monster movies is to remind mankind to stop going to extremes and waking stuff up. Don’t explore too far in outer space (“Alien”) or you’ll wake something nasty up, and don’t depend too much on machines or they’ll wake up and take over (“Terminator”).
And, let’s see … what are we supposed to learn from “Predator?” Don’t big-game hunt, using man’s unfair advantage over animals, because your karma will wake up galactic, dreadlocked, reptilian big-game hunters who will hunt you with advanced, unfair technology and mount you as a trophy. Okay, well, two out of three ain’t bad.
“Underwater” is saying: Don’t go too far down in the ocean, getting greedy for oil, or you’ll wake up a marine form of nastiness. Everything in moderation. It’s still a good rule to live by.
Director: William Eubank
Starring: Kristen Stewart, Vincent Cassel, Jessica Henwick, T.J. Miller, John Gallagher Jr., Mamoudou Athie, Gunner Wright
Running Time: 1 hour, 35 minutes
Release Date: Jan. 10, 2020
Rated: 2.5 stars out of 5