“We’ve got big things in store for you.”
Underwater is a summer movie from the late ‘90s being released in January 2020 for some reason. Maybe part of the reason is that it was actually filmed a few years ago – back when casting T.J. Miller seemed like less of a bad idea – and the distributors obviously don’t know what to do with it, given the complete absence of buzz surrounding its release.
Which is a shame, because Underwater is a good monster movie, a good disaster movie and of particular interest to fans of weird fiction, and it deserves a lot more attention than it’s going to get before it sinks unceremoniously out of theaters.
Of the few people who are talking about Underwater at all, most are comparing it to Alien under the sea (so, Leviathan, then) – comparisons that it definitely invites, especially for fans of that scene where Ripley is in her underpants. It shares more of its DNA with the various imitators of those films, though.
This is a sibling to movies like Deep Rising, Virus, Deep Blue Sea, Phantoms, Pitch Black, and so on. Like many of those films, it spends more of its running time as a disaster movie than a creature feature, though it drags in plenty of creatures before it’s done.
In spite of the difference in setting – and tone – I actually thought a lot about Pitch Black while watching Underwater, due to the emphasis in both films on crossing an inhospitable stretch of ground while fending off half-seen monsters from the dark. Hell, they’re even dragging something for part of this one.
Underwater opens with pretty much its only moment of calm before the storm, as Kristen Stewart gives us a voiceover monologue about pessimism and how, when you’re at the bottom of the ocean for months at a time, you lose all sense of day and night. “There’s only awake and dreaming.”
These opening moments – and moments is literally all they are – feel more like the start of a ghost story than a monster movie. There are strange noises, doors that pop open on their own, all leading up to a sudden tremor that tears apart the underwater station that’s there entirely to maintain a deep-water drilling operation, seven miles down on the bottom of the Mariana Trench.
From there, the movie never stops running. Underwater is a monster movie, but it feels more like a disaster film. Think of it as Gravity on the bottom of the ocean. When not in the water, characters are scrambling to reach it, or escape it. Lights are always strobing; sirens always going off. Water drips from every surface or pours in from above. The frame is always full of movement.
Neither the characters nor the audience get much more than a moment or two to catch their breath once the initial earthquake starts bringing the compromised structure down around their ears. The characters climb into massive diving suits that make the picture feel a bit like a dry run for a BioShock movie in order to undertake a perilous trek across the ocean floor in an effort to reach the drill itself, which they hope is undamaged.
This breakneck pace doesn’t lend Underwater a lot of room for character development or deeper themes, though there’s just enough of a blue collar, “corporations are bad, actually” message humming underneath everything to keep it from feeling too weightless.
Under the opening titles, we see snippets of newspaper reports – I told you this felt like a movie from a few years ago – about how the company responsible for the drill has dismissed “rumors of strange sightings” and the unknown dangers of working on the bottom of the sea for so long.
Even as the station comes apart around them, the characters are surrounded – and verbally bombarded from the PA system – by corporate platitudes. “You’re not just part of our team, you’re part of our family.” That kind of thing. Meanwhile, when the film is over, the end credits are also accompanied by reports of the company hushing things up and getting back to digging, monsters be damned.
Oh, right, monsters. This is me, after all, the “monster guy,” so if you’re reading my take on a movie about underwater monsters, you probably want to know how the monsters are. Well, for the majority of the picture, they’re scarce. Most of the time, the antagonist isn’t the monsters at all – it’s the ocean itself. The characters are just trying to survive a disaster that is plenty able to kill them all on its own, even before the monsters show up.
But when the monsters do finally show up, folks, do they ever show up.
Okay, I don’t normally do this, but I am going to ring the proverbial spoiler bell here. Underwater has a relatively predictable but really great third act reveal, which is going to get talked about a lot once people finally see this movie – which, at this rate, may not be until it straggles onto home video and/or streaming in a few months.
So, if you don’t want to know how it ends, stop reading now, because I am going to get into spoilers from here.
If you saw the trailer for Underwater, you know that they run into some monsters down there on the bottom of the ocean. It’s what got me into the theater in the first place, after all. The earliest of these is a relatively small, practical effect creature that they find inside a corpse. Most of the rest are roughly the size of humans or a little bigger.
Like the vast majority of monsters in movies in the last decade, they look a lot like the Cloverfield monster, but their mouths are pretty cool, opening up large enough to swallow a whole person. The underwater bits are murky with sediment, giving all these sequences a found footage feel, but they are also packed with plenty of monsters. They aren’t the end, though.
See, in the film’s last leg, we discover the cause of the earthquake. It seems that they have accidentally drilled into R’lyeh and woken up Cthulhu.
No, I’m not kidding. They never say his name, and you never see a sunken city, but there’s a kaiju-size, humanoid monster from beneath the bottom of the ocean, with a mouth that is fringed in tentacles and wing-like protrusions on its back. No one has to call it Cthulhu.
And before you complain that Kristen Stewart (maybe) kills it by blowing up the drill at the end, may I remind you that, in “Call of Cthulhu,” they defeat the big C by ramming him with a boat. Setting off what is essentially a giant bomb seems a lot more proportionate.
As I said before, there’s not a lot of thematic depth in Underwater. If it’s cosmic horror, it’s from the point of view of the bystanders, someone who gets swept up in the devastation but never really knows the greater implications.
But not a lot of depth doesn’t mean none, and we get a touch of that old transcendent nihilism in the arc of Kristen Stewart’s character, a self-sacrificing pessimist who fights hard against the dying of the light but, when the time comes, actually seems like maybe oblivion at the bottom of the ocean is what she’s been searching for all along.