When the trailers for UNDERWATER surfaced (get it, surfaced) it seemed kinda out of nowhere. Never heard this was coming, and it looks like underwater ALIEN (AQUALIEN?), it has long-since-cancelled T.J. Miller in it, maybe it’s been sitting on the shelf forever, and that’s why it’s coming out in January? Then people started seeing it and saying it was crazy and fun, or actually good, so I made the effort to see it.
Well, don’t get your hopes up. It’s fine. I enjoyed it. But we didn’t get to see it with low expectations. I don’t know where the craziness reports come from – I can’t think of what would be surprising in it, unless you don’t know Kristen Stewart (CATCH THAT KID) is a good actress.
She’s the main attraction playing Norah, a mechanical engineer on an underwater station deep in the Mariana Trench. She happens to be awake and brushing her teeth the morning that her section of the station gets breached. As she runs from the flooding she tries to wake the others, but only a dude she barely knows named Rodrigo (Mamoudou Athie, Grandmaster Flash on The Get Down) makes it safely into the other chamber where she opens a panel and rewires it to close a door right before some others make it.
We cut to later, when she lives in Thailand drinking all day and running a fishing boat, her career ruined and many blaming her for the decision she made but she’s good with kids and no on second thought that’s Jason Statham after the very similar opening scene of THE MEG. In fact UNDERWATER takes place entirely underwater as Norah and some other survivors she finds attempt to, you know, remain survivors.
They are: Captain Lucien (Vincent Cassel, MESRINE), who could’ve taken an escape pod but chose to stay; Paul (Miller, filmed months before the allegations), a weirdo who makes funny comments and talks to a stuffed rabbit; Emily (Jessica Henwick, an X-wing pilot in THE FORCE AWAKENS), a biologist; and her boyfriend Smith (John Gallagher Jr., PEPPERMINT), a guy with a beard.
They’re unable to get in contact with the surface, so the captain comes up with a plan that involves “walking” – putting on pressurized underwater suits that look like sci-fi space suits and walking to another station. Along the way 1) Rodrigo’s damaged helmet crushes his fucking head and 2) they are attacked by a little waterbeast motherfucker that they kill and drag into the lab to poke at. So they lose some friends and they gain some.
A million years ago when THE DESCENT came out I named that movie’s cave-dwelling monsters W.U.F.s, or Weird Underground Fuckers. These are their cousins, Weird Underwater Fuckers. They’re little blobs with sharp teeth and spiked tentacles and no eyes but attracted to light. I want one.
This turns out to be a baby, though. There are ones that are human sized and ones that are way bigger than a human sized and a giant Cthulu one big enough to have been the college boyfriend of that kraken voiced by Julie Andrews in AQUAMAN.
There’s lots of monster stuff, but also lots of going from station to station, trying to get equipment to work, trying to seal off breaches, trying to not run out of air in their suits. The movie must’ve been absolutely miserable to film, even though T.J. Miller dies pretty early. It rarely looks green-screeny and they’re constantly trudging through flooded hallways, so I’m sure it was months of working in a smelly water tank. Hats off to all of them.
The ALIEN and ALIENS similarities are obvious. You have your working class people doing a job, having to battle an unknown species that their employer may have already known about, stranded out in the middle of nowhere, exploring the site of a previous accident, dealing with failing equipment, repurposing tools as weapons. And there’s definitely a Ripley homage in that Norah and Emily both end up taking off their water suits and therefore running around in their underwear.
One smart distinction is that they don’t argue like the ALIEN characters. Maybe that’s less true to life, but it’s refreshingly different. I don’t think Norah outranks anyone, but her skills save their lives, so no one questions her authority. Her emotional backstory about her fiancee dying is nothing original, but I like how it comes up and how it informs some of her actions. And she has an interesting sort of toughness – skinny, but physically impressive, running around barefoot, getting knocked around and cut up, but still going, without ever acting macho. In fact, being emotional and vulnerable at times.
The monsters are pretty cool looking and distinctive. The coolest part is when SPOILER FOR THE COOLEST PART she gets eaten by one and you can see her through the translucent skin and she flareguns her way out. You could get pretentious and say that she’s reborn from it, but really it ate her, it’s more like shitting symbolism than birth. So let’s forget I said anything. Anyway, these WUFs don’t have acid blood like xenomorphs. That’s helpful.
But having ALIEN in mind is unfortunate because obviously these monsters can’t compare. The first one is my favorite and I think it’s an animatronic. But usually they’re swimming and I believe CG. They look good but I think the way they’re animated is maybe a little too obvious, too familiar of a CGI-monster-lunging-at-the-camera movement, not sloppy enough to quite match the realistic look of the movie. And maybe a bigger problem is that they always have a monster roar when they attack. I don’t care if you would really hear them underwater or not, but it’s just such a normal and obvious scare technique it makes them less effective, I think. I could use a weirder sound at least. Oh well.
There’s a little thing in the opening scene I really liked, though I’m sure some people will think it’s corny. Norah is brushing her teeth and sees a daddy-longlegs crawling in the sink. She says “What are you doing here?” She gets a paper towel like she’s going to squash it. Why not just run the sink on it? Because she’s not going to squash it, she lets it crawl onto the towel to lift it and release it on the wall.
In an abstract sense the spider foreshadows the WUFs, a creepy invasive multi-legged species that got on here somehow. And obviously it also tells us something about Norah as a person. Yeah, I know, “save the cat,” but saving the spider is different. I like it.
Only problem is this is right before the breach so the spider was really only spared for like a minute. Too bad we didn’t get a slow motion shot of him running from the water and making it. Or what if he showed up at the end and she says “I thought you were dead!” and they embrace. Sit and stare out the porthole together. Perfect ending.
I didn’t love this, but it’s a fairly impressive bigger-budget movie for director William Eubank (THE SIGNAL [the 2014 one with Laurence Fishburne, not the 2007 three part thing I heard was good]). He was also the cinematographer for the early Dave Bautista vehicle HOUSE OF THE RISING SUN. Imdb says his next one, TAUTONA, is about “A dangerous rescue operation at the world’s deepest gold min in South Africa turns into something much bigger when an ancient lost city is discovered.” I hope it’s exactly the same movie except no water and she’s running around in her underwear in a bunch of gold at the end.
Screenwriting credit goes to Brian Duffield (one of the writers on JANE GOT A GUN, and he did that Netflix McG movie THE BABYSITTER) and Adam Cozad (JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT, THE LEGEND OF TARZAN). I think they did a good job of getting some emotion into it, especially at the climax, but I think maybe it’s missing a little something. Maybe it’s the characterization of the monsters. We never get anything like that classic ALIENS moment where the queen is sitting on her eggs and she’s just a scary fucking animal defending her young. They’re just things that roar and swim at the camera real fast.
SPOILER ENDING DISCUSSION
As you know because you’ve seen the movie and that’s why you’re reading this spoiler part, Norah pushes Emily and Smith to take the two operational escape pods and then causes a meltdown that kills the WUFs as they slip away. But do you remember where she got this idea? At the beginning Rodrigo mentioned the possibility of a meltdown, followed by the funny line “I watch alot of anime.” So, for real, the reason there are two survivors is because Rodrigo watched anime. Anime saves the day.
I liked Norah’s heroic sacrifice – it was foreshadowed by her rescue of the spider, redemption for having to close the door on people at the beginning, and well explained with her insistence that they should escape together because she would do anything “for one more second” with her deceased fiancee.
But hopefully they’ll clone her in UNDERWATER RESURRECTION because why make a sequel without her?
VERN has a new action-horror novel out called WORM ON A HOOK! He has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the film criticism books Seagalogy: A Study of the Ass-Kicking Films of Steven Seagal and Yippee Ki-Yay Moviegoer!: Writings on Bruce Willis, Badass Cinema and Other Important Topics as well as the crime novel Niketown.