UNDERWATER review by Shyam Vedantam – Kristen Stewart & Vincent Cassel fight a deep sea threat

UNDERWATER review by Shyam Vedantam – Kristen Stewart & Vincent Cassel fight a deep sea threat

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The month of January is notorious among the film-loving community as a dumping group for bad movies. More and more movies vying for Academy Awards delay their release dates into December to remain in the public consciousness when the deadline for voting for these awards happens in mid-January. Therefore, January has become a month used by audiences and cinephiles for catching up on those films. This situation has opened an opportunity for a slight-of-hand by Hollywood studios – release films they feel less strongly about during this time and hope something miraculously hits with audiences or gets forgotten altogether (yet recoups some of their initial investment). This seems to be the story behind UNDERWATER, as the movie was shot in 2017 and has been sitting on the shelf since then. The survival thriller stars Kristen Stewart, Vincent Cassel, T.J. Miller, Jessica Henwick, John Gallagher Jr, and Mamoudou Athie as personnel on an extremely deep water drill who must try to escape and survive when something terrible happens in the deep depths.

The biggest problem with this movie is that it is missing a first act. At a runtime of 95 minutes, it is actually too short. The film’s first two minutes are a montage of newspaper clippings describing the ominous company who made the drill. The film then opens properly with a Stewart monologue/narration. Immediately afterwards, the film jumps straight into the premise of the underwater complex getting crushed by the ocean. As she tries to survive, she meets the other aforementioned personnel. Along the way to some form of escape, their journey gets thwarted by the surprising dangers of the deep ocean.

Director William Eubank and the writing team behind the screenplay (Brian Duffield and Adam Cozad) jump the gun. The film needed 20 minutes at the opening between the narration and the complex breaking down to set up the layout of the complex, who all the characters are and their relationships with each other, and what exactly they are doing there. What inspired the decision to do this unique job? What roles/training do they have? Why leave their family/friends? Without any of this, it is harder to get invested and care for the characters and their survival. Furthermore, how the film brings up and solves problems – where exactly different “checkpoints” spatially are in relation to each other, how characters escape from tricky situations (ex. seemingly leaving locked/enclosed rooms and hallways), how the characters have the abilities necessary to solve problems, etc. – doesn’t make sense. The audience is always confused and is therefore never in lock-step with and fully invested with the film. Furthermore, without a full investment in the characters, Eubank relies heavily on jump scares, instead of growing tension, to fulfill the horror genre requirements of the film.

In another movie, maybe all the above could have been ameliorated in great heavy-lifting by the character work and performances. Unfortunately, the actors are largely not up for this herculean task. Stewart turns in one of her on-brand slightly wooden performances, which in fairness seems to be part of the written character. However, there is a lack of a character arc, and the performance isn’t ebullient enough to buoy the film; she is no Ripley from the ALIEN series. Cassel and Athie are similarly one-note, but seem to be written as much. Gallagher Jr., whose other work shows him to be an underrated, humanistic actor being market-corrected by other white, male actors of similar age, also doesn’t get much to do. Henwick gets stuck with a line expressing the man vs nature theme of the movie in a ham-fisted manner; the film falls into the unfortunate stereotype of giving the character of East Asian descent this line. However, Miller is a bright spot. In the best way possible, he is acting in a completely different movie than everyone else. He seems to be singularly cognizant of the type of movie he is in and leans into it. His jokes, on-screen charisma, and character beats are much-needed and vital to an otherwise lifeless movie.

There are some things Eubank does get right. When the characters do walk on the sea floor, he accurately represents the grime and debris that muck up that water. This lack of vision depth at the bottom of the ocean is accurately mined for creating tension. The design of the deep sea walking suits is believable and interesting, and he uses these as lighting sources so we can see the actors. Character deaths do give stakes to the film. The creature design, while not completely unique or believable, is realized on screen well. It’s unfortunate that these finishing touches don’t have a better canvas to be on.

Ultimately, this film doesn’t succeed predominantly due to a weak story and screenplay. The performances are just not enough to save this drowned production, and the horror thrills are not unique enough to satisfy even die-hard horror fans. Perhaps at this short run-time, the movie can be enjoyed at home when it becomes available to the masses on whatever streaming website it gets released on and has measured expectations. Otherwise, UNDERWATER will likely underwhelm.

UNDERWATER sinks to the bottom of the ocean weighed by a dull script, a simple (yet confusing) plot, and largely uninspired performances… earning it a 3/10

UNDERWATER opens January 10, 2020

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