Film Review: Underwater is a sufficient but sometimes suffocating disaster film

January can be a bit of a dead zone for films, so it’s not a huge surprise that Underwater has ended up in this release period. A film that Disney, courtesy of its Fox acquisition, wound up with. It was completed back in 2017 and has been waiting for a better time to be released. The film taps into the automatic unease humans have when put into an unnatural environment and forced to survive against impossible odds. Oh and throw in deep sea monsters. 

We meet Kristen Stewart’s Norah Price, a mechanical engineer who also seems naturally good at everything. Norah manages to save her colleague Rodrigo (Mamoudou Athie) when the deep sea station they are working on suffers a catastrophic collapse. They then meet up with fellow survivors Captain Lucien (Vincent Cassel), Smith (John Gallagher Jr), Emily (Jessica Henwick), and Paul (TJ Miller). They’re running out of options as all the escape pods have been jettisoned or destroyed. So a last ditch effort using custom deep sea diving suits to cross the ocean floor to a nearby adjacent drilling site is their only shot. But, escaping out from their collapsing rig into the murky depths will reveal a much larger danger lying in wait.

The film directed by William Eubank, with a screenplay crafted by Brian Duffield and Adam Cozad, has a disaster occur where a band of survivors must travel from Point A to Point B in order to escape peril. The film wastes no time and after some initial exposition via fast snaps of newspaper clippings or website reports (like Godzilla), they opt to have everything going wrong after five minutes and maintains its relentless bad news pretty much the whole duration. This is great for those with short attention spans but it can be exhausting. There are also scientific inaccuracies everywhere. So don’t look too close or think too hard, because it will destroy the illusion. 

For a small ensemble cast the characters are thinly developed. And, we never feel like we want to connect or care for them. Norah spends a lot of time running around in her underwear (like Alien) because apparently wearing any extra clothing won’t fit into a deep sea diving suit. Jessica Henwick has one brief moment of playing a cool science type character, but then spends the rest of her time screaming a lot. All the supporting cast are underused in varying ways. Except TJ Miller who remains as the typecast annoyingly unfunny guy with a weird obsession for a plush toy bunny. 

The cinematography by Bojan Bazelli switches from watchable to squint inducing, but that’s the point. The moment we’re thrust into the murky depths of the bottom of the ocean we’re not meant to see much. It’s designed to set us on edge and feel uncomfortable. He also capitalises on some shots from within Norah’s helmet to add to the claustrophobia. Switching back and forth from POV to being next to her cheek. 

The creature design is pretty cool though a line thrown out by TJ Miller’s character asking “Is that the baby?” does telegraph that just because that first monster you see is small doesn’t mean they all are. By the time we hit our climax we’re given a Lovecraftian take on Cthulu that looks a lot meaner. But some of the better monster-jump-scares are when they’re traversing the ocean floor. Keep yours eyes peeled for the tiny reflective lights of the creature eyes. 

Tempering expectations of this film will be the most successful way of watching this movie. It’s a sufficient but sometimes suffocating disaster film as it pumps out so many bad things happening on screen. It’s nothing flashy or truly original but at a tight 94 minute run time it’s a watchable thriller.

TWO AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Underwater is out in limited Australian cinemas from 23 January 2020 through 20th Century Fox Pictures.

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