We all know “Alien” is a classic right? The sci-fi horror tale of a group of people stranded in the outer reaches of mankind only to find themselves hunted by a previously undiscovered species. Well over the years there have been many attempts to replicate the magic of the first film with few ever really succeeding even within its own franchise. But the concept lives on as a popular take on the survival horror story. To start off 2020 20th Century Fox has delved back into the clichés of Ridley Scott’s sci-fi masterpiece for their own survival horror sci-fi feature, one taking place not in space but, as the movie’s title indicates, underwater. Focusing on a ground of scientists attempting to find a way back to the surface from seven miles in the ocean after an earthquake destroys their laboratory, they soon realize their operation may have released lethal predators into the ocean and that the pressure and claustrophobia may be the least of their concerns. While “Underwater” sports a familiar concept, its setting is enough to promise a new spin on the sci-fi horror tropes of old. How well does it live up to that promise? Let’s dive into my review of “Underwater” and find out.
As stated above, “Underwater” is largely an “Alien”-style sci-fi horror focusing on a group of people attempting to survive in an uninhabitable environment with unknown creatures stalk them and a strong-willed female takes the lead as the main hero. As far as “Alien” knockoffs go “Underwater” is one of the more entertaining and effective offerings in that catalog. Directed by William Eubank, who seems to specialize in science fiction judging but his past films, and starring a small cast consisting only of Kristen Stewart, Vincent Cassel, T.J. Miller, Jessica Henwick, John Gallagher, Jr., Mamoudou Athie and Gunner Wright, “Underwater” makes the most of both its atmosphere and its clearly derivative clichés to provide an unsettling and delightfully uncomfortable experience that embraces its familiarity more than denies it. To a lot of people this might make it a bad movie, nothing more than a shameless knockoff of one of the greatest sci-fi horror films ever made, but to others it should prove as a strong reminder of why these kinds of films work and what makes them so fun. Changing the setting from space to the deep sea gives it just enough of its own identity to help it stand out.
It’s the underwater element that really does sell this film. I was on edge the entire movie feeling the claustrophobia and stress of the character’s predicaments every step of the way. Watching this movie, I cringed, I looked away, I curled my toes, and rarely did it have anything to do with the monsters involved. It had more to do with the sets, the atmosphere, the unrelenting sense of isolation and hopelessness that comes with the movie’s setting and how it tries to force you to imagine being in the same scenario. That is were I got the most fun from this film because frankly the monsters, while clear attempts at Lovecraftian design, didn’t feel too imaginative and the darkness and quick editing never really allows a good look at what they are. Plus there’s only really one person killed by those creatures. So the true fears comes from the scenario more than the creatures and honestly this might have been a better movie had it left out the monsters and went straight for the survival story elements…just a group of people trying to escape a doomed vessel. Bring in some real-life sea monsters if you need to, but the setup and scenario proved to be much more frightening than the creatures that serve as the main antagonists of the film.
The performances aren’t too bad. If you can get past Kristin Stewarts…well Kristin Stewart-isms “Underwater” serves as another example that she can hold a movie together in a leading role and could find her way as an action star. T.J. Miller, in spite of his real-life antics, is delightful as the comic relief even if his performance feels pretty out of place with the rest of the cast’s more somber and serious approaches to their characters. The rest of the small crew proved to be memorable enough that I never really lost track of anyone’s fate or involvement and I did feel bad when someone would bite the dust. “Underwater” also attempts to bring in some social commentary on humanity’s penchant for seeking resources and discovery and the damage we do as a result. This takes a back seat to the horror and action most of the way and is more implied and used as a tool to work in the monsters’ involvement than as a hard hitting theme of the narrative. Overall, I felt like “Underwater” could have been something more with a more committed and focused script, screenplay and cast but I wasn’t disappointed with what I got. If anything, it’s a good example of how this kind of setting could work and will hopefully help inspire more underwater movies or films that explore even more environments and do things a bit better and perfect the concept.
“Underwater” to me was harmless fun. As a horror movie it makes excellent use of its setting and the claustrophobia and danger associated with being trapped underwater which made it a cringe-inducing viewing experience in the best way. But it seems like it would have been served better by avoiding the Lovecraftian monsters and focusing more on the danger of the environment itself which provides most of the scares anyway. With that in mind I do believe it’s derivative nature as a clear homage to “Alien” might have been unnecessary to make it work even if that familiarity does help make “Underwater” and easy horror flick to invest in because we already know how effective the monsters-in-unlivable-environments trope can be. It’s a mixed bag, but one I kind of hope is a trendsetter that opens doors for more perfected subterranean movies to come that can fully capitalize on the ideas that make “Underwater” more good than bad. For now, if you’re seeking a fun sci-fi survival story that’ll chill you to the bone based on its setting alone “Underwater” gets the job done.