“Underwater” is a welcome 90-minute panic attack with Kristen Stewart’s great articulation of discomfort rippling in her every expression and action.
The film deals with a drill operation in the Mariana Trench which suffers a sudden catastrophic failure and the survivors scramble through the gargantuan underwater rig and across the immense pressure of the sea at that depth to make their escape. What caused the failure is later revealed and goes beyond their wildest imaginations.
Cinematographer turned director William Eubank’s camera kicks off the film with a pirouette that takes in the palm-fingered, 70s hospital looking corridors of crew quarters – a familiar sight in this genre from “The Andromeda Strain” to “Alien”. It finally rests on Kristen Stewart’s Norah, brushing her teeth contemplating the permanent darkness when a shudder heralds the complex beginning to implode.
A small crew assembles for their attempted flight (Stewart, TJ Miller, Vincent Cassel, John Gallagher Jr., Mamoudou Athie and Jessica Henwick). Before they embark they discover the final messages from their fallen crew members that triggered the devastation, hinting that they have awakened something in this deep dark.
Kristen Stewart is sensational here. Her performance style is to lean into discomfort in character and let that elevated state echo in stumbling over words (“Twilight”), fidgeting (“Personal Shopper”) and nervousness. Here she so authentically displays how little control one would have with the adrenaline coursing through her body.
A large portion of “Underwater” lands squarely on her star power, and she does not disappoint. Her character Norah is a mechanical engineer so apart from the sheer determination to survive, she’s continually hacking, breaking down and manually overriding a litany of faulty equipment to help her team hop, skip and jump through the dominoes of collapsing compartments.
Vincent Cassel’s Captain has confidence and pragmatic outlook that keeps them pushing through the seemingly impossible. Cassel can project this effortless ambiguity, which in the brief moments adds unresolved suspicion to this company’s awareness of what may lie beneath. T.J Miller (yes I know, he’s cancelled) is there to diffuse tension with levity, which does and doesn’t succeed in equal measure. Who knows, he may meet a satisfyingly grizzly death. You’ll have to wait and see.
The production design from Dorotka Sapinska is exquisite. If you’re a gamer that’s ever played the “Gears of War” franchise, the underwater pressure suits are going to scratch that live-action itch that ongoing production delays continue to deny. Every vessel, control room and equipment bay is exquisitely appointed with a mixture of classic tactile buttons and readouts that you’d associate with Nasa space shuttles and a variety of enhanced digital interfaces. Everything felt lived in and weathered – a typical if it ‘ain’t broke’ outlook that explains the add-on feel of every space.
There are so many beautifully orchestrated shots in “Underwater”. Gore Verbinski’s frequent cinematographer Bojan Bazelli delivers on some unforgettable shots. Slow-motion bodies arcing through the air as segments of this underwater rig implode, between silhouette framing of Stewart’s Norah curled up in the foetal position regaining composure after a series of escalating near-death experiences; images from the movie are lingering in the days after my viewing. The score overwhelms Marco Beltrami, while Brendan Roberts finds the nexus between Hans Zimmer and Trent Reznor in this thumping mash-up between boisterous orchestra and brain-gnawing electronics.
Never underestimate a lean 90-minute film. The story by Brian Duffield (who co-writes the screenplay with Adam Cozad) exists in the shadow of “Alien” (1979), and that’s O.K. “Underwater,” like the very entertaining “Life” (2017), rarely gives you a moment to breathe let alone tire of its non-stop tension. Designed as an escalating series of certain death or ‘never tell me the odds’ (hint they are high) potential death scenarios through caverns, pipelines and even stalking across the bottom of the ocean – the rare pauses become welcome. “Underwater” also relishes in the fragility of every member of the crew. There’s no “Fast” physics here. From the opening gamut of explosions as Norah (Stewart) and Rodrigo (Athie) begin searching the facility for survivors, K-Stew bandages her bare and bloody feet to make the trek because god knows where her shoes could be.
One of the things that makes “Alien” so excellent is the crew who are about to be attacked by the nearly unstoppable terror of the Alien – taking a moment to bargain for increased wages for their mission detour. In “Underwater” there are similar touches, which I’ll carefully tiptoe around, that make you ask the question, do these crews ever cycle out? Do they ever go to the surface? Has the perpetual night and constant unfathomable pressure of the depths of the ocean affected their perception of time?
In James Gray’s “Ad Astra,” it was so fascinating to see that to continue his mission Astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) would have to validate his psychological health ritually. In “Underwater,” it seems the faceless corporation allows for people to be drawn to the depths, the farthest reaches from their surface lives, without question. “Underwater” in that respect has solidarity between the hierarchy, rather than a class or authoritarian tension. One of the characters, if not more, are seemingly drawn to this deep dark as a refuge from their own internal abysses.
The flaws are primarily in the final stage of the film as the proximity of the camera, anchoring itself to Norah (Stewart), has several instances resulting in total disorientation. There’s a moment when a creature they’ve awakened begins to pursue and extinguish the lights of each team members pressure suits. When it grabs the Captain (Cassel) with Norah (Stewart) tethered to him, they’re dragged through the depths at breakneck speed. You lose where you are and a hell of a lot of the tension. It’s evident that this ride is in keeping with the rest of the style of the film, but unlike boundless space, murky water stirring may as well be the inside of a washing machine. It’s such a fine line to continue new escalating hellish discovery that by the time we meet what’s been awakened you’re all in or you cash out.
There’s two things that keep me coming back to films like “Underwater”. The first mentioned in the movie is the beautifully obvious sentiment ‘we should not be here’. The second is that with an ensemble cast like this, everyone’s gloriously grotesque death is on the cards.