Humanity is, in general, not a huge fan of things that go bump in the night or, for that matter, of anything that swims menacingly just out of sight in deep, dark water.
And yet, when the siren song of immense profits call, as they do in the William Eubank-directed Underwater, any concerns about phobias go sailing out the window.
That might be great for the bottom line of Tian Industries, a company that establishes a sophisticated and clearly multi-billion dollar drilling facility in the depths of the Mariana Trench but not so good for the hapless employees who are caught between pancaking building layers when an earthquake strikes the compound.
At least, everyone thinks it’s an earthquake but of course forewarned and forearmed by a trailer that heavily suggests there is SOMETHING out there, 7 miles below the ocean’s surface, we know way better than the likes of Norah Price (Kristen Stewart), a mechanical engineer who is one of the few survivors of a destructive event that kills the majority of the close to 300 people working in the facility.
As she and five other survivors – Rodrigo Nagenda (Mamoudou Athie), Captain Lucien (Vincent Cassel), Paul Abel (T. J. Miller), Liam Smith (John Gallagher Jr.) and Emily Haversham (Jessica Henwick) – crawl through collapsed corridors and traverse the ailing and broken detritus of corporate overreach, lights blinking and diving rig helmets cracking at inopportune moments, it becomes apparent that the earthquake is stalking them, attuned to where they are and determined to not let them get any further.
If this sounds like just another Alien-esque monster movie to you, just deep down in the scary netherworld of the ocean’s depths, then you’d be right; in many respects it is a classic beasty-out-to-get-you-you’re-coomed film.
There is the growing trail of evidence that something horrific this way comes as the survivors, on their way to a station that still has working escape pods capable of getting them 36,000 feet to the surface, discover bodies of survivors being fed on by prehistorically nightmarish creatures and damage to structures built to within sustained and heavy impact.
Underwater, written by Brian Duffield and Adam Cozad, takes it time revealing the true extent of the stalking threat at hand, teasing out a glimpse here, a suggestion there until the monster and its minions/whatever the hell they are, are revealed in all their Lovecraft-ian glory.
(The film owes a debt of gratitude to H. P. Lovecraft, not simply in the look and feel of the creatures hellbent on killing Norah et al but in its adherence to the author’s philosophy that challenged a human-centric view of the universe; in fact, one character says at one point “We shouldn’t be here”, a point echoed by Norah who sagely nods in agreement.)
The survivors are, of course, picked one by one and it becomes clear as Underwater weaves it darkly tantalising narrative spell, that the majority of these survivors are not long for this world, especially this far down in its ghostly, largely unknown depths.
And yet, for all these familiar elements, Underwater feels fresher and more willing to play with its horror creature chess pieces than other members of the genre.
For a start, it wisely installs Norah, an eminently talented and capable mechanical engineer who is key to the small group having any chance of survival at all, as the beating heart and soul of not only the survivors but the film as a whole.
Accustomed as we are to arrogant, all-conquering (often male) heroes who save the day with bluster and bravado and a cavalier disregard for social niceties and any vestiges of humanity, it is a breath of fresh air (ironically given how often the group comes perilously short of the stuff) to have a hero who isn’t just good at what she does but imbues everything with a real concern for the people around her.
Time and again she preferences others before her, whether it’s urging the Captain to head to the surface because he has a daughter or near-ordering others into pods because they love each other – one thing that is a real, pleasant surprise is who survives and why – a selfless character trait that endears her to you even as she races against a host of obstacles to get everyone home safe.
Underwater serves us up a hero who is both brilliantly capable but deeply and profoundly human, keeping the two beautifully in tension throughout and ensuring in the process that the film never once feels like an “Ooh, Aah” festival of empty though spectacular whizbang special effects and scary monster moments.
Surprisingly for a movie of this kind, it fairly surges with all kind of rich, human moments, all of which feel palpably real and authentic, thanks in large part to a consistently heartfelt performance by Kristen Stewart who is beyond exemplary throughout.
It means that Underwater is one of those rare beasty movies that isn’t just viscerally scary and existentially frightening but also full to the cracked concrete brim with characters, especially once again Norah, who react exactly like we’d expect a sane, sensible person too.
They talk about wanting to survive, they’re desperate too in fact, and at times this fear immobilises but then they get about the business of trying to make those earnestly wishes, emotively-uttered wishes come to fruition rather than falling into a helpless heap and dooming themselves and everyone else unfortunate enough to be near them.
It doesn’t mean, of course, that Underwater is ever going to be an Oscars contender (though Stewart’s performance more than meets the criteria) but it does mean that as the monster, who is really just a lifeform we haven’t yet encountered in an environment that we have no real right to be in, stalks the last six people alive in the complex that we are heavily invested in seeing who survives and why, lending a significant emotional investment to a film surprisingly rich in the very things that make us human.