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  • nickkarner

Underwater (2020)

Stephen Hopkins is a frustrating filmmaker. It’s impossible to label him as a bad director because his talent is glaringly obvious. Perhaps it’s the way his films initially sound great on paper. Maybe it’s the fact that many of his movies, specifically the ones regarded as failures, are not outright disasters. His skilled eye finds dynamic ways to shoot the material and it’s disappointing when a film is almost there. It very nearly works, but it can’t make it past the finish line or stick the landing. Granted, A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child is arguably the weakest of the Nightmare franchise. It’s not the worst. That would be Freddy’s Dead, but I doubt many people would say Dream Child is their favorite.

Predator 2 may have killed the franchise for several years, but it’s undeniably entertaining and even underrated. His next two features feel like damage control, so Blown Away and especially Judgement Night, are solid mid-level action flicks. He went big once again with The Ghost and the Darkness, and once again, it doesn’t quite work. Not a terrible film, but not great either. Lost in Space? Yeaaahhh...that one definitely didn’t work. Ditto The Reaping, which at least sounded like it could be scary. Under Suspicion? Fine, but quickly forgotten. Race was a very enjoyable film that came and went, possibly swallowed up by the decent number of African American-centered biopics of the last ten years. He retreated back to television and had great success, particularly with 24. The wildly fluctuating quality on each of these projects wouldn’t bother me so much if he wasn’t also responsible for one of the finest TV movies I’ve ever seen. The Life and Death of Peter Sellers is a stunning achievement, and although Geoffrey Rush gives a towering performance, the direction of the film ranks among some of the best I’ve ever seen. Endlessly inventive, it won Hopkins a well-deserved Emmy for Best Director. I was reminded of a quote from the film while watching the 2020 creepy crawly aquatic feature Underwater. A Swiss interviewer asks Peter (Rush), how he can inhabit his characters so successfully. Sellers responds, “I don't really have any personality of my own. There used to be a me behind the mask, but I had it surgically removed.”

It seems equally plausible that the “characters” in director William Eubank’s Underwater either had this procedure done already or require a “reverse” surgery to implant some characteristics. When the (allegedly) horrible T.J. Miller is the most amusing member of a cast filled with reliable actors, it’s not a good sign. And honestly, when I say amusing, I mean compared to literally no one else saying anything of much interest.

I got a little wistful when I saw the 20th Century Fox logo come up, then I thought, “Wait a minute. This is from January 2020. How could this have the original logo?” Sure enough, this was not only the last Fox film to feature the iconic logo (yeesh, what a film to go out on), but it was shot in 2017 and held back due to the Disney acquisition and possibly due to it being a fairly weak monster movie. The credits fade in and out, obviously looking to mimic Alien in both typeface and plot. Keep dreaming, guys. Still, the action starts right away, which raises a great question. Is it better to forego any character development or even introductions since most of the cast are archetypes anyways, or should you take a few minutes to establish who these people are and then throw them to the wolves, or rather, sea wolves?

Kristen Stewart plays Norah, looking like goddamn Lori Petty and sporting big glasses and a cool shaved head. We sense she’s a good person since she decides not to squish a stowaway spider crawling around in her sink. Being an engineer, maybe she appreciates the mechanics of her eight-legged friend’s mode of transportation. She notices a leak in the ceiling, which can’t be from a faulty roof since she’s in a drilling station located seven miles below the ocean surface. All hell breaks loose and we get an intense destruction scene with some stylish slo-mo chills and thrills. Norah runs into Rodrigo (Mamoudou Athie, Grandmaster Flash on The Get Down), a drill worker with “dies first” written all over him. Lookout! Cliché!!! They have to choose between shutting some secure doors or waiting for some random crew members to make it to safety. Screw those guys!

Seriously though, they wouldn’t’ve made it, so closing the doors was a good call.

It turns out the drilling station suffered the devastating effects of a massive and unexpected earthquake. Most of the 316-person crew aboard the Kepler Station are gone, but as they crawl through the wreckage, Norah finds Paul, a wiseass played by Miller. He’s somehow still alive despite being buried under some very large debris. Just saying...she could’ve just re-buried him. Wouldn’t have been hard, but OK, fine. Save him if you must. They find the remaining crew, which includes Captain Lucien (French acting legend Vincent Cassel, Mesrine, Irreversible, Eastern Promises), fellow engineer Liam (Tony winner John Gallagher Jr.), and research assistant Emily, played by Jessica Fenwick, playing against type as a fragile scaredy cat despite showing herself to be a fierce warrior in shows like Game of Thrones and Iron Fist.

If you’ve seen the trailer, you know what they have to do, since Paul, unfortunately acting as an audience surrogate, explains aloud that they have to use diving suits with low oxygen to walk a mile across the ocean floor to reach another station. The station is called the Roebuck, which I couldn’t help but assume was the place Sears must have stowed the other half of its original name. On the way, they’ll run into several obstacles, most significantly the presence of literal sea monsters. Underwater would feel right at home in 1989 during the ridiculous slate of ocean-based movies that included The Abyss, Deep Star Six, and the awesomely silly Leviathan. Those last two films didn’t have the benefit of a relatively lavish budget for what’s essentially a studio B-movie. Underwater’s budget ranges from 50-80 million, which seems like a giant gap, but once you take into account the film being held for nearly 3 years and the presence of three editors, it’s likely this number simply accrued over time.

Rodrigo is the first to go, gallantly giving an intact helmet to Norah while choosing a slightly cracked one for himself. Water pressure ain’t nothin’ to fuck with as his suit literally explodes due to the depressurization and the fractured helmet. Emily is the most upset by Rodrigo’s death, which feels very sexist and a pretty shallow characterization. Does it have to be a woman who’s the most vulnerable and susceptible to hysterics?

Hearing a distress call, Paul and Liam drop down to investigate. In one of his few funny bits, Paul hands off a stuffed rabbit for safe keeping, warning, “If he doesn’t make it, I’ll haunt you.” The stuffed bunny comes off as a silly little affectation in a pretty bland movie, but what turns out to be quite amusing is that Miller was under the impression that the stuffy was going to be a real animal CG’d in later. In fact, early scenes were shot with a live bunny, but due to the obvious dangers involved, it was safer to substitute a fake bunny. I’m uncertain whether the presence of a live animal in peril would’ve heightened the tension here. The rabbit may at least have been the most interesting character.

The production values in Underwater are admittedly top notch. This is the sad fact about bad, or at least mediocre, movies. A film can be professionally shot, edited, scored, costumed, designed, etc., but if the story, acting, and direction don’t match the craftsmanship, none of that matters. Here, the murky camera work may be somewhat difficult to see, but it’s a convincing depiction of deep-sea diving. Credit is due to cinematograher Bojan Bazelli, who blasted right out of the gate with Abel Ferrara’s Romeo & Juliet-inspired China Girl (1987). His stellar career has included fine indie work like Tapeheads, Patty Hearst, the brilliant King of New York, Deep Cover, Surviving the Game, Body Snatchers, and even huge studio fare like The Lone Ranger and the Pete’s Dragon remake.

The men find a weird little monster chowing down on a dead body. It lashes out at them, but they manage to bring it back on board. Emily gives it a once over, commenting that it has no eyes. Paul deduces that it’s only a baby and gets some “20,000 leagues vibes.” The creatures disengage their vessel and send them crashing down. Pulling their way through the wreckage, Paul gets caught on something. A creature grabs his foot and yanks him out through his pant leg, causing his helmet to fill up like a bucket of blood. Nice. Later, Cassel speaks to the crew and I half-expected the response to go like this: “Listen, I know Paul is gone-” “But we shouldn’t celebrate right now, sure. We get it.” Doesn’t happen, but it should’ve.

They trudge along, using their suits to light their way, which is not cool since the sea monsters are attracted by light. We finally get a good look at them, and they’re not half bad. Nothing special, but they reminded me of Return of the Jedi. Sort of an aqua-Rancor. Liam’s suit malfunctions while Norah and Lucien get attacked and float upward. Lucien’s suit depressurizes too fast and he sacrifices himself by releasing Norah before they both explode.

Norah, now separated from her group, makes it to a station at the halfway point. She snags a new suit and arms herself with a flare gun. She can’t seem to contact any of them, but then she hears Emily frantically muttering to herself. Norah tackles her and calms her down enough to get them back on their feet. The creatures have overtaken the Roebuck and they have to pass through a horror version of beaded curtains, slowly edging their way through fishy limbs hanging above the station’s entrance. Why they couldn’t just crawl is beyond me. A large monster, humanoid in its shape, grabs Norah and for a hot minute, I actually thought she was a goner. She should’ve been, I’d argue, but although her helmet is literally in the things mouth, she uses the flare gun to blow the creature away. Before they make it inside, she fires one more flare, revealing a gigantic sea beast. It’s never spoken, but this is supposed to be Cthulhu, the ancient one made famous by author H.P. Lovecraft. I admire the ambition, but how dare you try and make this thing out to be anything but the generic alpha of a race of subterranean marine life forms? If this were a film by Guillermo Del Toro, Stuart Gordon, Richard Stanley, or anyone else with legit Lovecraft cred, it would be acceptable, but just shoehorning in an iconic monster to aid your stupid, generically-plotted monster movie smacks of desperation.

Only two escape pods are operational...oh, and by the way, Liam is still alive, although I couldn’t care less. Norah is the only one doing anything as she runs around checking everything in the structure. By the way, she lost her big-ass glasses in the first scene, so we have to assume that she can’t see shit, yet her accuracy is spot-on when she pops Emily in the face for not getting into an escape pod. I’d like to think this was Stewart’s idea and it’s quite amusing when she immediately apologizes. Emily and Liam float up to the surface and a friendly computer lets Norah know that the Cthuluhu Junior Patrol are closing in fast on the vessel. Way too easily, she activates a core meltdown. Literally, she taps a few buttons and an announcement is made. “Core meltdown in progress.” She accepts her death, blows them all up, which is laughable considering it’s fucking Cthulhu, and Emily and Liam survive. The evil corporation, who may or may not have been trying to research and use these creatures, stages a quick cover-up and resumes drilling, setting up a sequel that’s unlikely to happen. Then again, there are a bunch of Starship Troopers movies, so who knows?

The screenplay, credited to Brian Duffield (one of the Divergent films and the fun The Babysitter) and Adam Cozad (the Chris Pine Jack Ryan movie and The Legend of Tarzan, which made way more money than I would’ve expected) can’t create any characters of depth. The fact that they take a few lame stabs at emotional complexity makes the abject failure even more obvious. The movie begins and ends with a useless voiceover by Stewart, which we later find is in reference to a fiancée she lost in a diving accident. Cassell supposedly has a daughter that’s Stewart’s age, but Norah finds a funeral card for his 14-year-old kid. Again, who the hell cares? The only plusses here are the fast-paced action beats and the absence of a sleazy business guy who would’ve forced the crew to capture one of the monsters alive for study.

Kristen Stewart is a divisive actress. The Twilight book series became a worldwide phenomenon and the film adaptations skyrocketed her to mega stardom. Like many performers who had huge success in a studio film or a franchise, she went the indie route, determined to prove that she was, as Nicole Kidman put it in Moulin Rouge, “a real actress.” Whether portraying French New Wave performer Jean Seberg, playing a supporting role in Still Alice, or working with French indie darling Olivier Assayas, she wants to be taken seriously. Still, she’s occasionally dipped her toe back into the studio system, although what specifically drew her to this role is unclear. She’s even quoted as saying “I thought it was really a good idea to do something that was not very intellectual and purely physical,” so it would appear that she didn’t regard this gig as a particularly important one. The obvious influence on the role is Ellen Ripley, whom Stewart can’t hold a candle to. The rest of the cast does an adequate job, nothing more.

Underwater wishes to prey on a natural instinct to fear the unknown, particularly the dark depths of the ocean. Unfortunately, without compelling characters, we get a hackneyed story supported by fine production values (including impressive ‘wet for dry’ effects) and standard monsters. It never veers into pretension nor believes it’s anything more than a thrill ride, but perhaps a more humorous or tongue-in-cheek approach would’ve separated this creature feature from its other cinematic ilk.


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