On the relatively short list of things that terrify me, close to the top would be the ocean. Scientists and researchers have barely even scratched the surface of what the ocean inhabits and it frightens me to think what could be lying in wait at the deepest points. That said because I find the sea to be so unsettling, I have found myself drawn to the subgenre of aquatic horror. Films such as Deep Rising, Deep Blue Sea, and Ghost Ship are some of my favorites and who can forget the classics such as Jaws, The Abyss and Leviathan? The latest film to “dive” into this subgenre is William Eubank’s (The Signal) UNDERWATER, a film that firmly kept me on the edge of my seat, stressed and terrified until the final end-credit rolled.
The film centers around a crew of underwater researchers tasked with drilling a hole at the bottom of the ocean located at (or around) the Mariana Trench. In the aftermath of what they believe to be a large-scale earthquake, the crew finds themselves trapped in the underwater research facility which is rapidly flooding the structure. With limited options, the crew of six decide that their best chance of survival lies in walking across the ocean floor to a distant abandoned rig, 7 miles beneath the ocean’s surface. Dealing with the physical challenges that accompany a crumbling structure while navigating a foreign and dark landscape underwater with limited oxygen is one thing, but when the crew realizes they are being stalked by an unknown sea predator, they must do whatever it takes to survive and make it back to the surface before it is too late.
As I mentioned above, this movie absolutely terrified me. Between the intensity of what the crew was experiencing, the suffocating feeling brought on by claustrophobia, and the ungodly creatures, I found myself experiencing intense anxiety as I willed for (almost) every character to survive. At the forefront, we have Nora, played by Kristen Stewart (Twilight franchise, Personal Shopper), a mechanical engineer who looks at life with a cynical eye. Stewart’s performance was one of my favorite parts of the film – she’s genuinely scared but is also trying to keep a level head about her. She’s the type of person that you want in a situation like this because while you’re screaming in terror, she’s right at your side trying to calm you down. She’s a fighter who has experienced her own trauma and it’s clear that director William Eubank’s was forming the character of Nora into one that pays homage to Sigourney Weaver’s portrayal of Ripley in Alien. The film also stars French actor Vincent Cassel, as the cool-headed Captain of the crew, Jessica Henwick as Emily, the research assistant, John Gallagher Jr. as Liam Smith, one of the surviving crew members, T.J. Miller, who has been relatively out of the spotlight since he was accused of sexually assaulting and punching a woman in 2017, as the trademark funny guy, and Mamoudou Athie, who plays Rodrigo, the first crew member that Nora encounters once the facility begins to flood.
Having each character be so fundamentally different in their personalities was definitely a high-mark for this film. Instead of delving into each of their backstories, the film starts off with a bang giving very little time for much to be explored. Instead, we get to see how each of them react in the most difficult situation imaginable as well as the teamwork that is required in order to survive. I also appreciated how the film didn’t rely on making you feel like the characters were all safe. As a viewer, this heightened the tension because it felt like at any moment any of the characters could die which allowed me to genuinely root for their survival. When deaths do occur, they are quite startling, and for a PG-13 film, Eubanks still made sure they packed quite the punch. There’s not an excessive amount of gore, instead, Eubanks relies on building tension while giving viewers quick glimpses at what the creatures are. There is one moment, in particular, that is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it-moment, where the crew is trying to get into a rig and off in the distance you see a figure that resembles the outline of Slenderman (don’t worry, the creatures aren’t Slenderman). Reading this, that might not seem so scary but believe me, in the context of that scene, it evoked an audible gasp from me due to the shock of seeing it.
As much as I love this movie (and believe me, I’m still thinking about it almost 24 hours after seeing it) it’s not necessarily reinventing the wheel. Eubanks clearly was inspired by films such as Alien and The Abyss, which to me, isn’t necessarily a problem. There are even moments that hearken back to 2017’s sci-fi/thriller, Life, and 2005’s The Descent. That said, I think the third act is where the film truly shines in terms of separating itself from its predecessors and allowing for a more Lovecraftian narrative to take hold. It’s at this point where the severity of the situation is ramped up to a 10 with fast-paced cuts, vivid imagery, and intense frenetic energy that’ll keep viewers on their toes. The visuals really stood out in the film especially during the slow-motion sequences, as well as the tight camera shots, both in and out of the water suits, which helped in providing an enclosed feeling of terror. I was nervous that the CGI of the creatures would be hokey, but I’m happy that wasn’t the case. That said, there are some similarities between the creature design in this film and the creatures seen in Cloverfield. It’s not identical but I can see why there is a comparison between the two.
In all, UNDERWATER was the perfect kick-off for 2020 and is a rare horror treat for the month of January, a time when most people wouldn’t expect a strong film debut. It has its flaws, as do 99% of most films that come out, but that doesn’t take away from the fast-paced narrative and stifling sense of dread that encompassed the entire movie. As cliche as this may sound, I did find myself holding my breath during certain scenes because the tension was so thick that I was waiting for that sweet release of a scare so I could relax. But what I think is even more important was how quickly I wanted to watch the film again and pick up on all the small details I might have missed the first time. This is a film you’ll definitely want to experience on the big screen, so make sure to see it in theaters when it arrives this Friday, January 10, 2020. In the meantime, I’ll most definitely be staying away from all major bodies of water.