The reason most movies take about 20 minutes or so to get to their “inciting event” is to establish the characters, the stakes, the world, etc. Director William Eubank and writers Brian Duffield and Adam Cozad decide to skip past those 20 minutes in their thriller Underwater and cut right to the action. Unfortunately, this leads to life-and-death decisions with characters we don’t really know. If you’re going to focus on six people and we know that not all of them are going to survive their perilous journey, then there needs to be a reason to care about them, otherwise they’re just cannon fodder for sea monsters. The lack of investment in the characters renders Underwater inert, a film that could have been a pretty great B-movie fare and instead strains to be merely adequate entertainment.
While brushing her teeth, engineer Norah (Kristen Stewart) feels a shockwave at her underwater drilling station. She races to survive and eventually meets up with five other survivors: Rodrigo (Mamoudou Athie), Emily (Jessica Henwick), Smith (John Gallagher Jr.), Paul (T.J. Miller), and Captain Lucien (Vincent Cassel). With the station collapsing and time running short, Lucien concocts a dangerous plan to get the survivors to a handful of escape pods. However, as the team slowly makes their way across the ocean floor of the Marianas Trench, they discover there are undiscovered terrors waiting for them.
Underwater basically uses the Alien template: a group of working-class stiffs struggles to survive while a monster starts to pick them off. The deep-sea setting offers a fun spin as the characters are relegated to moving slowly across the ocean floor. However, Eubank doesn’t really know how to capture this action. Granted, his options are limited since there’s not much to light the exteriors and his characters are in bulky deep-sea diving suits, but the geography and sound design are a mess with characters tossed around the abyss however the plot demands. Underwater is a film that’s always willing to cast logic aside as quickly as possible, which can sometimes be a fair trade if the payoff is worth it, but here it just serves to make the stakes even more unbelievable.
For example, fans/non-fans of Alien: Resurrection might remember a scene where a character, knowing that there’s a monster roaming around, goes back for a gun even though it’s clear he doesn’t really need it and that it’s just a lazy way to set up his demise. Well, if you missed that dumb move, don’t worry because Underwater pretty much replicates it, and it’s not like it got better with age. If you’re not willing to treat your characters like rational actors, then you can’t expect the audience to be invested in their fates.
Instead, the burden to care about these people lies solely with the actors because the script hardly tells us anything about who they are as people. Stewart shows she’s a capable action lead, and a majority of the cast acquits themselves well. But the tediousness of T.J. Miller really wears on you. Even if he hadn’t tanked his career in the past two years by being transphobic and calling in a bomb threat, his “I’m the comic relief character” schtick has worn thin. You’ve seen Miller play this guy before, and whenever he’s on screen, you’re rooting for the sea monsters.
Underwater has a solid premise to make for an exciting B-movie (although I admit it’s odd to cite an $80 million movie as a “B-picture”), but too many elements fail to click into place. There’s not enough time spent on caring about the characters and their world before it’s disrupted. The action scenes are haphazard and confusing. The comic relief character is rote and predictable. Eventually, the novelty of being underwater wears off and the only way we relate to these characters is plodding along and trying to make it to the exit.