Underwater begins with a somber contemplation of living several miles below sea level. Kristen Stuart, in her usual worn, uninterested — bordering on haughty — gaze discusses how time can be deceiving; you can never be sure if something is real or a dream. Within a couple of minutes, noises filter throughout the locker room where Stuart’s character, Norah, is getting dressed for her shift. She forgoes putting on shoes to investigate only to come face-to-face with an unexpected leak. From then on, the movie becomes a full-steam ahead disaster flick without ever returning to the idea of dreams versus reality.
For a disaster movie like this to work well, we fist need a team of interesting characters that we become attached to and are able to root for throughout the inevitable deaths. By starting the movie with the inciting incident, we may be thrust into the film without ever getting a chance to breathe, but we’re also now forced to meet all of the characters as we progress through the journey of finding a way up to the surface without getting killed. This is why the film is so fun and infuriating at the same time.
Along with Norah, the survivors of the early destruction of a deep-sea command station for a high-powered underwater drill include the captain of the expedition (Vincent Cassel); Emily (Jessica Henwick); and Mamoudou Athie, John Gallagher, Jr. and T.J. Miller, who according to the IMDb page aren’t important enough to have actual character names. Whether they do or not is beside the point; this is just evidence that we never truly get to know who these people are, what their actual jobs are, and how these skills will come in handy down the road.
Heck, Emily and Gallagher, Jr. are supposed to be madly in love with one another; it’s a key plot point throughout the film. And yet, when one of the characters doesn’t even have a name, how are you supposed to connect with them on a level deep enough to warrant the filmmaker’s ultimate goal? Beyond that, at no point do we ever see these two characters as a couple. The best we ever get is a conversation between Norah and Emily that explains their relationship. More showing, less telling, writers!
This makes the majority of the film feel highly inorganic. The filmmakers try to establish character traits for each of the characters, but because we never get to know them outside of the disaster, they just feel tacked on. Take for instance the stuffed bunny that T.J. Miller carries around with him everywhere he goes. He is extremely protective of the little thing, but we never know why. Continuity in character development also becomes an issue, as at times it seems everyone knows each other, and at others, it seems like they’re just meeting them for the first time.
If the natural disaster aspects of the environment weren’t enough, director William Eubank also goes out of his way to introduce an underwater sea creature that hunts the group as they make their way to the drill. Why he thought bringing this aspect into the film, I’m not sure, as I believe fighting the elements would have been enough to sustain the setup.
The saving grace for Underwater are the action sequences and effects, which director Eubank creates with a keen eye for detail. For a film released in the dregs of January, the budget for the film was put to good use. The creature designs are well done and the computer graphics never look fake. I have to say that, although the first action set-piece is the best of the film, and sets the mood quite well, the rest of the action does a good job of placing us in a series of claustrophobic situations that bite at your nerves.
Third-act contrivances aside, Underwater is a breeze to get through. It may not follow the usual formula, and the characters may all be cookie cutter disaster wannabes from other better films of this nature, but the film clearly does what it sets out to do. If only we had spent some time with these characters prior to being picked off one-by-one in sometimes gruesome, and in other times bewildering fashion.
My Grade: B
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Next week, new movies include Bad Boys for Life and Dolittle. If you would like to see a review for one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.