A deep-sea-diver movie is a close cousin to the greatest cinematic subgenre of all—the astronaut movie. The aesthetics are basically identical: Both rely on character actors decked out in chunky exploration suits, fumbling their way through postindustrial corridors while contending with loudly bleeping alerts from stern computer voices. Most important, both are set in harsh environments whose dangers are all the scarier for being unknown. William Eubank’s damp new horror film, Underwater, has all of those ingredients, and their presence was just enough to keep me entertained through a fundamentally silly 95 minutes at the theater.
Underwater could aptly be called Tunnel, given how much of it takes place in a series of anonymous tubes, but the existing title says all you need to know about the premise. This is a film that dares to ask the chilling question, “What if you were underwater and something really bad happened?” Norah Price (Kristen Stewart) is a mechanic living in a deep-sea base several miles under the ocean, where a faceless corporation has decided to drill deep into the Earth’s crust for reasons that are never quite specified. Plot-wise, it doesn’t matter, because Norah’s life as a subaquatic grunt is immediately disrupted. Every doohickey near her mysteriously explodes, and the undersea station starts flooding, leaving Norah and the other sweaty survivors to find their way to safety while being besieged by a mysterious force.
Stewart, sporting a blonde buzz cut and an inimitable glare, is her usual charming and offbeat self in the lead role; she’s a nice change of pace from the grumbly alpha male who typically heads up this kind of B-movie. The talented ensemble includes Jessica Henwick, John Gallagher Jr., and Vincent Cassel (one of cinema’s greatest weasels, here cast against type as the decent captain of whatever mission this team is on). It also, regrettably, features T. J. Miller, whose comic stylings had already grown very stale before he was accused of assault and sexual misconduct. (He has denied the allegations against him.) His presence here can be chalked up to the fact that Underwater was filmed almost three years ago, but that doesn’t make his penchant for agitated, smarmy line-readings any less exhausting.
Almost all of the dialogue in Underwater is inscrutable, because the sound mix is dominated by ominous groans and bangs as well as the occasional shrieking jump scare. There’s no need for narrative coherence, just technobabble nods at whatever the next task is—turning on backup power, or pressurizing the sea suits, or trudging across the ocean floor toward an escape pod. Eubank, whose past efforts include the small-budget indies Love and The Signal, finds a couple of inventive ways to kill off characters, and the eventual reveal of what’s been causing all the chaos (spoiler alert: It has tentacles and claws) is appropriately ghastly.
The paragon of this kind of movie (mid-budgeted sci-fi thriller in which a talented cast is picked off one by one) is Danny Boyle’s 2007 masterpiece Sunshine, a grim and quietly influential space-mission yarn. Underwater never rises to those heights, but it’s not bad for a project released in early January, when studios tend to discard critic-proof genre debris following the Christmas glut. Still, I could have done with a little more context for what, exactly, is going on at the bottom of the Pacific. The design elements of Underwater are obviously influenced by Alien, the film that introduced the rather revolutionary concept of space travel as a mundane, blue-collar job. While Underwater’s script (by Brian Duffield and Adam Cozad) makes clear that its characters are under a similar capitalist yoke, it mostly skirts past the creepier implications of what their employers are trying to accomplish by drilling deep into the planet.
A more coherent message might give Underwater more punch, but the action never slows down enough for it to get that cerebral. There’s always an emergency depressurization to confront, or a collapsed hallway to navigate, with a toothy monster possibly lurking around the corner. If not for the unusual setting and Stewart’s unique star presence, Underwater might feel completely anonymous. Fortunately, all that H2O suffices to give this goofy trifle a memorable sense of atmosphere.