During Underwater’s opening flurry of newspaper articles, conspiracy websites, and redacted government documents, it manages to misspell the word “buoyancy.” It’s not indicative so much of the lack of care put into the movie as it is the level of skill with which it was made. Directed by William Eubank (Love, The Signal) and written by Brian Duffield (The Babysitter) and Adam Cozad (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit), Underwater is a boyishly incompetent film with little substance and less craft. Its self-conscious aping of Ridley Scott’s Alien and James Cameron’s wire-taut followup, Aliens, only serves to place Underwater at an instant disadvantage. From its opening tour of the underwater drilling station, an indifferent recreation of Scott’s quiet glide through the Nostromo in Alien layered over with a “Live, Laugh, Love”-league monologue by Kristen Stewart, to its self-destruct sequences and escape pods ending, it tries and repeatedly fails to replicate Alien’s tension and naturalism.
The film’s inability to create suspense is one of its worst flaws. Its every attempt to do so is fatally hampered by impatient, jerky editing and paper-thin writing. No sooner do we see Stewart’s Nora elbow-crawling through a collapsing tunnel than we switch to another character in the same situation for no conceivable reason. Characters stop and talk during sequences that should be gripping, constantly changing, alive with menace. There is no thrill in this kind of aimless channel-surfing, and for all Eubank’s frenetic dashing about and artistic flourishes, the film’s action is no better than its horror elements. At best it’s gloomy and difficult to follow, at worst outright incomprehensible. The occasional incongruous comedy cuts, as when T. J. Miller’s and John Gallagher Jr.’s characters shoot a mysterious sea creature and the scene immediately cuts to Miller slapping it down on a table, add nothing to the existing morass.
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Nothing in Underwater lasts very long. The characters are constantly moving, constantly in new forms of peril, but never for long enough that the audience has a chance to learn the rules or piece together a rough sequence of events. Individual scenes end more or less arbitrarily. It doesn’t help that there’s little worth looking at or listening to on offer. Stewart gives an intriguingly taut, twitchy performance, but her entire emotional arc is “dead boyfriend” and the film’s other characters are somehow even less compellingly sketched. That the film offers neither explanations for its creatures nor backstories for its characters is a legitimate creative choice, to be sure. The unknown is the single greatest psychological driver in fiction. Where Underwater fumbles the ball is in approaching the unknown incuriously, shrugging at its monsters and ignoring its own characters.
The monsters themselves, the only draw here aside from Stewart’s buzzed, bleached hair and skittery sexual magnetism, are hit or miss. The translucent merfolk things are interesting, if overly similar to so much of the past decade’s creature design with their smooth, grayish skin and multi-part jaws. The leviathan in the film’s final act is a kind of diet Cthulhu which Eubanks never quite figures out how to frame. When Nora fires a deep sea flare at it as it climbs out of an abyssal fissure there’s a moment that nearly lands, but murky CGI and the film’s uniformly awful lighting fouls it beyond repair. The rest is half-assed character beats, try-hard sci-fi action, and an endless sequence of doors that won’t open and timers counting down until, like a ruptured oxygen scrubber, it finally runs out of air.