Underwater is a serviceable sci-fi horror picture that could’ve excelled had it been made for a different medium. The film wastes no time opening the flood gates as our bleach blonde heroine Norah (Kristen Stewart) is plunged into chaos. When the underwater lab she works in gets rocked, Norah finds herself charging down the corridors with a surge of water destroying everything in her tracks. The way this opening scene is shot, paced, and staged almost feels like the first level of a video game. It even builds to a moment where Norah must decide whether to close a door, thus ensuring her own safety, or keep it open long enough to save a couple fellow researchers. In a game, the action and difficult choices would make for a compelling experience. As far as movies go, however, it often treads on familiar waters.
Norah must suit up and trek through the deep sea in order to reach the destroyed facility’s escape pods. She’s accompanied by a crew of fellow survivors and a stuffed bunny one of them carries around. The significance of the bunny is never explained, but that’s far from the biggest question in the film. The first wave was only the beginning of their problems, as the sea is overrun with creatures right out of H.P. Lovecraft. Some are no bigger than facehuggers while others could be in Cthulhu’s weight class. The story is essentially Alien meets The Abyss with a hint of The Poseidon Adventure. Where those movies had unforgettable characters, however, Underwater could’ve used a breather to give us a bit more exposition.
The only character who really has a distinctive personality is T.J. Miller as the wisecracking Paul and even then, he’s basically playing the same comedic relief we saw in Cloverfield over a decade ago. Everyone else feels like a blank slate. This wouldn’t be a big deal in a video game where the player is supposed to step into the protagonist’s shoes. Underwater actually shares many parallels to Metroid Prime and BioShock, which didn’t dedicate much time to character development, but the hazardous environments, creepy creatures, and overarching sense of dread were more than enough to keep the player engaged. Since this is a movie, though, it’s hard to get 100% behind characters we don’t know much about.
While the characters aren’t especially interesting on a dialogue level, the performances do go a long way. Stewart has gotten a bad rap due to her Twilight years, but she’s since proven her worth in films like Clouds of Sils Maria and Camp X-Ray. Even if Noah falls short of Ripley and Furiosa territory, Stewart’s determined performance does mold her into a resilient heroine we want to see survive. Likewise, Vincent Cassel, Jessica Henwick, and John Gallagher Jr. all turn in emotive supporting performance. Although the setting is grimy and dark, director William Eubank still manages to deliver a visually impressive film with a lot of well-crafted shots and exciting moments.
Underwater knows what it wants to be and executes that vision competently, even if it doesn’t bring anything that new to the table. It’s passable escapism as a movie, but likely would’ve accomplished a lot more as a game. Then again, it’s only fair to judge a work of art for what it is rather than for what it isn’t. So, instead of looking at the glass half empty, go ahead of drink the half full glass.