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Underwater (William Eubank, 2020)

Michael S

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I love genre films, so much so that, some years ago, I binge-watched a slew of them while also reading some academic studies of genre films. (By the same token, I dislike a lot of genre films because they fail to fulfill some of the basic elements of their own genres or, more important, do something creative or new with those elements.) I'm fond of the Mad Max series, for example (and I think the first two films are actually avant-garde), Ridley Scott's original Alien, John Carpenter's Escape from New York (and its long takes), Michael Mann's Heat, David Fincher's Panic Room and The Game, Nicholas Ray's Johnny Guitar, David Mamet's mixed-genre film Redbelt, Alejandro Amenabar's The Others, Clint Eastwood's High Plains Drifter, Bong Joon Ho's Snowpiercer, and ... I could go on.

I very recently watched William Eubank's Underwater, which stars Kristen Stewart as a mechanical engineer working for a mining company that operates in the Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean; it's the deepest ocean trench in the world. The crew experience a disaster in their mining station at the start of the film and then fight to survive, all the while being pursued by something mysterious and predatory at the bottom of the ocean. I loved it. It's a very efficient film, wasting almost no time with anything (including exposition, back stories, or even the mysteriousness of what they encounter underwater). It has a very effective mise-en-scene and great atmosphere, whether it's the claustrophobic surroundings caused by fallen structures or the very dark murkiness of the ocean seven miles from the surface (while the murky images are meant to be unsettling, I think they have an odd beauty to them). Also, there's something almost Victorian or 19th-century about the film, even though it takes place in the near future -- unexplored depths of the earth, the existence of monsters, the prevalence of fear, like something out of a Jules Verne tale (and for those of you who might be fans of fantasy and horror fiction, well, I won't spoil things, but there's something in the film taken directly from an H.P. Lovecraft story).

The film failed at the box office, and, while I personally don't give a lot of stock to the scores or grades films get on Rotten Tomatoes or IMDB, I'll mention the following to make a point: Underwater scored 48% on the Tomatometer, 5.9/10 on IMDB, and 48/100 on Metacritic. The issue I take with these results is that they're aggregates of multiple reviews and critics' opinions, and they don't really account for the individual experience of watching the film. To get that, you have to read individual reviews by individual critics, but there are occasions when that can be frustrating because the reviews are either boilerplate in construction or the authors will sometimes include easy references to give readers some kind of context. I was mystified by several reviews of Underwater that compared it directly to Alien or suggested that it's a weak recreation of Alien. The Alien I know is quite different from Underwater, except for some genre elements that weren't necessarily created by Ridley Scott or his screenwriters. (By the way, I mean no offense to anyone who relies on those sites' scores or has their film reviews circulated by them.)

Speaking of individual experience, I can explain some of the reasons why I loved the film. First and foremost is Kristen Stewart's performance. In recent years, she's chosen a number of interesting roles in small or independent films, including Kelly Reichardt's Certain Women and Olivier Assayas' Clouds of Sils Maria and Personal Shopper, and I think she's more talented and skilled than her Twilight-saga reputation usually allows. In Underwater, her characteristic (and I suppose natural) nervousness suits her character well, given the stress she's put under. I'm struck most by the fact that Stewart's gifts as an actor don't necessarily manifest in her line readings, but more so in the expressions in her face and her eyes. There's an interesting moment when she's both confused and troubled as her captain reveals that he did not evacuate with other members of the crew when the station collapsed, and she shows both emotions on her face at the same time (see screenshot below). Her performance throughout the whole film really is a series of expressions, rather than perfectly-delivered dialogue.

I also love the film because there's an element in it that's not overplayed or even critical to the overall development of the plot: this is a film partly about people who have experienced significant loss in their lives (including Stewart's character), and that experience shapes some of the decisions they make and how they respond to other characters. I can't say if Eubank and his screenwriters would have had the skill to make the theme of loss more critical to the story, but the fact that it's underplayed and receives only a few references adds to the film's efficiency and also gives the audience some credit for being able to make connections on their own.

And, finally (and I direct this in a way to the argument that the film has no substance), I enjoyed Underwater because it taps on something from my childhood: my love for adventure stories and fantasy novels, for science fiction and movies about monsters, whether it was The Creature from the Black Lagoon, Godzilla, Frankenstein, Dracula, Tarzan, or something else. These stories ignited my imagination. Underwater does that as well, and it's loyal to that kind of mission: an escapist, other-wordly, and sensory experience. Underwater isn't profound, and I wouldn't want it to be.


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  • 3 months later...

I loved your review, Michael, and made a point to rent Underwater last night from Redbox. 

I tracked with your reasoning, and I share some of your childhood love of monster/creature features. I wanted to like this film - I love genre films that tap into fear of the unknown, especially when they do so in a fun spirit (I'm thinking of Tremors), although I wasn't expecting humor here. I'm reluctant to say that I was let down by this film, and I've been trying to figure out why.

I think what you see as a strength - no backstory, dives right into the action - was a drawback here. Often those character sketches are one-note, and that can feel lazy. But I did find myself thinking about Aliens while watching Underwater. It's been much too long since I've watched Aliens, but my memory is that the crew members are sketched out in that one-dimensional James-Cameron fashion, and while I scoffed at that when Aliens was new, I miss at least the attempt to give me a little something about the characters in a movie like Underwater.

The execution of the action sequences in Underwater is more than competent, and I repeatedly caught myself noticing how good the film looks. (I often find myself wondering - and admiring - how a filmmaker/cinematographer gets the exact look of a film, especially when special effects are involved.) But by the time the characters set out on a dangerous walk, I was already struggling to pay attention. I wasn't bored, exactly; I just wasn't engaged in the way I need to be to buy into the characters' fates.

On a more positive note, I watched to the end and found myself pleasantly surprised at the way the film reveals its creature(s). I kept imagining still frames on the cover of the Fangoria of my youth. And all within a PG-13 framework, which is, to my mind, admirable. There's no reason teens under 17 should be restricted from seeing Underwater, but so often studios will add unnecessary gore or other graphic content to get an R rating. Sorry to go all Michael Medved here; I just appreciate films that establish intense moods and situations without falling back on overly explicit/graphic imagery. I only wish more people had seen the film, even if I'm not more than, say, 2 stars on Underwater.

I did enjoy Stewart's performance, but then again, I've liked her in almost all of her roles.  

Edited by Christian

"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

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I enjoyed reading your thoughts about the film, Christian. A side note: I fondly remember Fangoria, although I was more a reader of Starlog, and had a subscription for several years when I was a kid. I eventually discarded all of the issues I owned. Occasionally, I have moments when I wished I had saved at least some of them, such as a special issue on Blade Runner and one on Peter Hyams' Outland. Such a great magazine for a curious kid like me. 

For the most part, the visuals in Underwater are indeed pretty good. I love the opening shot: a look down a corridor, then the camera pans left until it stops to introduce Stewart, who's standing in a doorway in silhouette. Then the lights come on. You make interesting parallels to Aliens; tangentially, I started thinking about other films I've seen that feature odd creatures or offer a similar fear of the unknown, something like Underworld, which features Kate Beckinsale. Vampires vs. werewolves, the occult, et. al., and yet, compared to Underwater, it's so encumbered and convoluted and inconsistent in its attempt to create its own mythology and an alternate world that I appreciate Underwater's lean efficiency all the more. I can understand your desire to engage with the film's characters and their fates in a more direct and thorough way, something that I do think the film could do better -- but I like the film's minimalist approach, given that it's essentially a survival story wrapped within a monster movie, in which everyone's goal is to get from point A to point B as safely as possible. Not having the heavy myth-building, alternate-world-building elements of other films might have come at a price (in terms of character development), but, for this film, that's a trade-off I'm personally willing to make (not that all of these elements are necessarily mutually exclusive -- and, of course, not that you were suggesting that Underwater should have been more akin to a film like Underworld or something similar to it).

I'm entirely with you on the issue about intensity/suspense/mood and the use of really graphic violence, and appreciate when filmmakers can create the former without resorting to the latter. Granted, there are a couple of graphic moments in this film (the character who literally explodes after his helmet cracks, for example), but there's a much greater emphasis on the mood and terror than there is on the destruction of bodies, something that is almost always presented as spectacle and, because of that, is dehumanizing. 

On a different note, I'm keen on exit music in films, and the song that begins playing right as the last shot transitions into the credits just undermines the overall tone of the film, in my opinion. I think the film's music supervisor could have selected something more appropriate.

Anyway, thanks for taking the time to watch the film and to respond here.

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