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Claustrophobia has long been a staple of the horror genre since Ridley Scott’s Alien or John Carpenter’s The Thing. For many decades, Hollywood has become obsessed with recreating the same type of atmosphere as those movies on a bigger scale. Realistically, the majority have failed but in 2017, 20th Century Fox attempted to once again achieve this unspoken goal with an aquatic horror called Underwater.
Unfortunately, shortly after Underwater’s completion, 20th Century Fox went through some trouble and was eventually bought by Disney. With it, the aquatic horror fell into limbo. It seemed Disney had no idea what to do with the film and how to market it. It was only in 2020 the studio decided to release the movie with close to no advertisement campaign last January, alongside the poorly received Grudge reboot and even worse reviewed The Turning. All indicators pointed towards a dud but three years after its initial inception, could Underwater be a blessing in disguise for fans of aquatic horror movies?
Underwater follows a small crew of aquatic researchers. They must fight for survival when their research station located miles under the surface of the sea starts to self-destruct. The crew believes the cause is an earthquake. Yet, it isn’t long before they begin to suspect that the strange noises reverberating outside this facility may be more than that.
Almost immediately, Underwater cranks up the tension, opening with the conflict that becomes the focus of the story. In mere minutes this research facility is imploding catastrophically and Kristen Stewart’s mechanical engineer Norah must fight to save as many of her compatriots as possible before things get seriously nasty.
From there this crew of researchers must journey across the ocean floor to reach the ‘Roebuck’, the final possibility of securing escape pods to the earth’s surface. It’s an adrenaline rush of an opening. Viewers already get the impression director William Eubank (The Signal) wants Underwater to be a tense journey for audiences. For the most part, he does genuinely succeed in achieving this.
Eubank does terrific work at times generating suspense and interesting action. The darkness of the ocean floor is Underwater’s greatest ally in creating fear and tension. One particular set piece involving a transport tunnel manages to be extremely discomforting to viewers, the filmmaker making the feeling of claustrophobia palpable.
However, Underwater does at times struggle with a crisis of identity. When Eubank focuses on the tense claustrophobia of the dark depths below, the horror works extremely well. But far too often, the film gets bogged down in moments of exposition that feel unwarranted and out of place.
The end product suggests that Underwater may have been victim of cuts and edits enforced by studio interference, something all the more believable given Disney shelving the picture for quite some time. Furthermore, these segments of exposition do very little to propel the story forward as once the malicious nature of this catastrophe makes its way to the forefront, the previous info dumping adds little to these new unforeseen developments. One can’t help but wonder what Underwater could have been back in 2017 had it been released untampered with. Chances are it could have been an entirely different movie.
When the film finally reveals what really is going on, it may make or break the movie for audiences. Some will condemn it as ridiculous but although that’s hard to argue against, if you can embrace where Eubank wants to take this simplistic horror flick, you may find Underwater demands much more respect than initially thought. Personally speaking, the cinema obsessed teen inside of me lapped up the final reveal without any real hesitance. Without spoiling, the subject matter is a mythos I have been infatuated by for quite some time and it gave me the unexpected amongst an all too familiar set up. One can’t help but commend Eubank for that.
The cast in Underwater too are for the most part solid, even when playing somewhat underdeveloped characters. Stewart as the hero is some of the best work she has ever done, playing an extremely likable and admirable person who almost always puts the wants and needs of others before her. Vincent Cassel is strong too as always playing the captain of the expedition and John Gallagher Jr. does good work as another engineer and often voice of reason. Even T.J. Miller isn’t as painstakingly irritating as he can be as the comic relief between Underwater’s more tense moments. The only real misstep performance wise is Jessica Henwick as a biologist prone to fits mass hysteria when confronted with the unknown.
Overall, against the odds, Underwater is a solid little thriller/horror movie. It has many faults like a lack of substance and some cliches. But it boasts enough thrills and unique elements over its tight 95-minute running time to entertain.