Roughly speaking, this time last year I took what would unfortunately end up being one of my final trips to a cinema before COVID-19 bulldozed its way through the globe.
Living in London at the time, I took the Tube to visit the closest multiplex in the area that was showing what is now defined as the final film to be released under the iconic 20th Century Fox brand, as Disney changed the company name to 20th Century Studios just a week after its release.
The film in question is William Eubank‘s deep sea sci-fi horror popcorn flick, Underwater.
Starring Kristen Stewart, Vincent Cassel, T.J. Miller, Jessica Henwick and John Gallagher Jr., Underwater takes place in the year 2050 and follows a group workers on a drilling facility at the bottom of the ocean who encounter hostile creatures after an earthquake destroys the facility.
If you didn’t see this movie which wouldn’t at all surprise me as the screening I attended only had two or three other audience members, you’re probably thinking to yourself, “Oh great, another film about a group of unlucky suckers who encounter life forms and get picked off one by one! How original!”. And you wouldn’t be wrong at all to make that assumption. That’s exactly what Eubank‘s film is. Do forgive me for the aqua-related pun, but Underwater certainly does…tread water.
Going back to the two or three audiences members that were in the same screening as me, unsurprisingly, Underwater lasted just six weeks in UK cinemas. In the eyes of its distributor, it underperformed. However according to Box Office Mojo, the film made an impressive $40.9 million approx. worldwide at theatres. So not a box office failure by any measure.
What is rather surprising about the financial unsuccess of Underwater was how few cinemas in London it was actually being screened in on its opening weekend. Next to none of the cinemas in and around Central London were screening Eubank‘s film on its opening weekend. Living in West London at the time, conveniently I only had to travel three stops northbound on the Piccadilly line from Acton Town to Park Royal to get to the nearest Vue cinema that was showing the film. The destination: Royale Leisure Park, a retail park that was mostly fast food restaurants situated next to a very busy dual carriageway and Tesla dealership. An odd location for a cinema in my opinion.
Anyway, that’s all of my nostalgic rambling out of the way. Let plot synopsis commence!
In a high intensity, explosive opening at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, Kepler 882, a research and drilling facility is hit by an earthquake. Mechanical engineer Norah Price (Stewart) and her colleagues attempt to reach the escape pod bay. Discovering the three escape pods have already been deployed, Price and her two fellow colleagues find Captain Lucien (Cassel). Together they reach a control base and find biologist Emily (Henwick) and engineer Liam (Gallagher Jr.). Unsuccessful in their attempts to make contact with the surface, Captain Lucien suggests walking one mile across the ocean floor using pressurised suits to station, Roebuck 641 in the hope of resurfacing from there. To the dismay of the rest of the group, they follow the captain’s orders.
Using a freight elevator to descend closer to the ocean floor, one of the members of the crew’s defective helmet implodes under the pressure of the water instantly killing him. The surviving crew see a distress signal from one of the escape pods below. Liam and Paul (T.J. Miller) go to investigate. As Liam and Paul arrive at the location, the pod has ripped open and in the debris lies a body. As Paul inspects the body, a hatchling creature emerges from the body to attack him. Smith is able to shoot and kill it with a bolt gun. Once they’re back inside the Kepler, Liam and Paul bring the now dead creature onboard for Emily to investigate. It is quickly established that it’s an undiscovered species.
Further distressed by their profound discovery in all the madness, the remaining five now begin to set out towards the Roebuck station. And unfortunately for them, during their deep sea expedition, the Kepler explodes causing debris to fly and hurl towards them. In a fight for survival, the five run as fast as they possibly can to reach for safety. Unlucky for Liam, he is hit by some of the debris but is rescued and dragged to safety by Price and Captain Lucien. Using an access tunnels to navigate their way to safety, being the last member to make it through to the other side, Paul is attacked by a stalking creature and dragged underwater before being ripped out of his suit and killed. The ever-decreasing crew is able to reach the meet-point of the station and clean and recharge their suits.
In a stroke of even more misfortune for Liam, his oxygen source is badly damaged from the falling debris causing him to breathe toxic fumes from the explosion. Refusing to leave another crew member behind, Price, Captain Lucien and Emily agree to drag Liam across the ocean floor to get to the Roebuck. As the four remaining crew members make their walk across the mile of ocean floor, things get even worse for Liam as he’s picked up by a creature and dragged into a nearby cave. Scurrying to help, Captain Lucien manages to pull Liam away from the creature and out of the cave. Mistakenly leaving behind the bolt gun, Captain Lucien re-enters the cave in an attempt to retrieve it before being dragged up through the water by the creature. As Price bound herself to Captain Lucien, she too is dragged up through the water leaving Emily and Liam behind. They’re both dragged around the ocean like rag dolls before Captain Lucien manages to spare Price by valiantly sacrificing himself from the rapid increasing pressure differential. Using a knife to cut the bind, Price plummets back towards the ocean floor whilst Captain Lucien ascends further, eventually imploding.
Ending up near Shepard station, in a rather cheesy, ultra 80s action flick montage, Price finds a blueprint of the initial drilling site and then able to change her damaged diving suit for a new one. The scene has quick, choppy cuts, a grandiose soundtrack playing over it and it’s a jamboree of Ellen Ripley/Sarah Connor female badassery. Very much in the vain of that scene from Commando.
Continuing with her walk, Price reunites with Emily and Liam. And after an ultra melodramatic, scenery-chewing pep talk from Price, Emily manages to regain composure to help drag Liam towards the Roebuck. As they get closer to the station, they notice there’s a nest of the same creatures they’ve being trying so desperately to avoid thus far. Attempting to sneak by as they’re sleeping, they get so close to the entrance before Emily’s suit, low on oxygen begins to make noise, waking the creatures. As Emily manages to get herself and Liam to safety, Price is attacked by one of the creatures. Partially swallowed by the creature, she is able to kill it and break free of it by shooting her way out of the creature with a flare gun. She then fires the a second flare into the distance and sees the creatures are spawn of a gargantuan creature resembling Lovecraftian cosmic entity, Cthulhu.
Quickly entering the Roebuck, the three de-suit and head for the escape pods. Woefully for the trio, there’s only three functioning escape pods. This is only knowledge to Price, so she heroically spares herself in order to let Emily and Liam reach the surface. And after a bit more cringeworthy melodrama between Price and Emily, the two begin their ascent.
In what’s undoubtedly going to be her final moments, Price notices that the smaller creatures begin to chase the two escape pods. Accepting her fate, Price overrides the energy overload of the Roebuck’s nuclear core in what will likely cause a colossal explosion. As Price stands by and watches, the gigantic underwater creature begins to scarper before the Roebuck explodes, taking it and all of its spawn in the vicinity along with it.
The film ends with images of a newspaper article stating that Emily and Liam made it to the surface safely. The company behind the deep sea dig, Tian Industries go on to state that they continue to go on with their drilling and will expand their efforts.
Now, is the film perfect? Not by any stretch. Is it pioneering or innovative? Definitely not. But is it any good? Absolutely! Although Eubank‘s film borrows heavily from its science fiction horror predecessors, it’s still an above average film and a solid entry into the genre. Quite remarkable in certain aspects. Albeit it’s essentially Ridley Scott‘s Alien…underwater, it’s still a refreshing survival horror work of fiction.
For starters, the cinematography is gobsmacking. Though noticeably CGI-heavy, the cinematics and visuals in this film are otherworldly! When was the last time you’ve ever really thought about what the bottom of our oceans look like? You haven’t until just now. Eubank along with cinematographer, Bojan Bazelli create a gigantic, dystopian engineering infrastructure that is encompassed by the vastness of the western Pacific Ocean. Though the colour palette mostly consists of icy blues and garish greenish tones, you are fully submerged to the murk of the very bottom of the Mariana Trench.
However on the flip side of that, sometimes the camerawork is quite chaotic and jarring. During the scenes of Price and co. making their mile walk across the ocean floor, when the action begins, the CGI and SFX are noticeable and somewhat distracting. With the murky colour palettes and blurry visuals, these set pieces become disorientating to watch and detract from the suspense they’re trying to create.
As far as the performances go, they are all satisfactory. As previously mentioned, there’s some melodrama from Stewart in certain scenes, but as the main actor it’s expected for her to flex her acting muscles at least once or twice throughout its 1 hour 35 minute runtime. Stewart is able to breakaway from the Twilight Saga typecast by channelling her inner Sigourney Weaver. Norah Price is the Ellen Ripley. Even down to the Alien 3 Ripley buzz cut.
The supporting cast don’t go unnoticed either. Vincent Cassel is his typical, suave, smooth-talking French-self with the biggest range and depth of any member of cast on-screen. Like Rick Dalton in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Cassel is “the heavy” of Underwater.
True to style, T.J. Miller is “the funny one”. Before his character is brutally departure, Paul crams in as many you-can’t-help-but-laugh one-liners and face-palming comedic moments as humanly possible.
As for Underwater’s score, that’s where the film really shines! Handled by legendary horror film composer Marco Beltrami and Brandon Roberts, viewers are bombarded with rich, theatrical soundscapes and stabbing synths that are bound to get your heart racing. There are moments of relief however where it is less anxiety inducing, with emotive, strings and spacey, extraterrestrial atmospheres and textures. If like me you’re a fan of listening to film scores, I can’t recommend this one enough. With the volume set high, the lights down low, you’ll be in for one hell of a listening experience!
My biggest criticism of what little there is to criticise about Underwater is its lack of originality. With Scott having blessed the world with Alien and McTiernan exposing us to Predator, ever since the science fiction horror genre has largely been in limbo. No fresh ideas have been displayed. It’s difficult not to reinvent the wheel when creating a creature feature, whether it be set in high up in space, in a Central American rainforest or set down below in the sea.
That being said, because Eubank’s film wears its influences on its sleeve, it provides for exceptional entertainment! Underwater doesn’t require your absolute, undivided attention. Though not totally mindless, there’s no thought-provoking storytelling. There’s very little to unpack. And that’s exactly what a science fiction horror film needs to be. Did Alien, Aliens or either of the two Predator films have any groundbreaking subtexts? No. What you saw on-screen was exactly what it was intended to be. Four superb, timeless films that were masterfully put together, relying solely on the atmosphere, suspense and horror their stories created, the acting ability from their cast members and their impressive scores. Underwater has all of those ingredients. I believe it can proudly sit upon the mantelpiece of the better and bolder science fiction horror films.
With the film not being considered either a box office failure or a critical failure, Underwater leaves room for William Eubank to still cement himself as (one of) the next iconic science fiction filmmaker(s). With his previous efforts The Signal and Love, both which were met with positive praise and both of which I love, I am eager to see what’s next for Eubank. Personally, I would like to see him dive a little deeper into the horror landscape of science fiction. And seeing the stellar set designs, costumes, intricate filmmaking style and most important the astounding design and look of creatures, I think that he may just be the man for the job to finally give us that Dead Space live-action adaptation. What do you reckon, Glen Schofield?