The title Underwater is as bland as it comes and yet it’s the perfect moniker for this utterly derivative action/horror hybrid. Kristen Stewart stars as Norah Price, an electrical engineer who works nearly seven miles under the ocean on a drilling platform in the Mariana Trench. As the film opens, Norah is pondering what seems to be a shaky relationship–in a voiceover that only pops up two or three more times over the next 90 minutes–when something causes the Kepler Station underwater rig to collapse around her ears.
She and two other survivors–Mamoudoe Athie and T.J. Miller in his likely final role before cancellation–make their way out of the devastation in a frenetic sequence. They also eventually discover Captain Lucien (Vincent Cassel), Emily (Iron Fist’s Jessica Henwick) and someone literally named Smith (John Gallagher Jr.). Except for Norah, no one seems to have a full first or last name, which is indicative of the paper-thin characterizations in Brian Duffield and Adam Cozad’s script.
We don’t really know these people, we really can’t figure out their relationships, and we have no idea what led up to the disastrous collapse of the station. In fact, it seems like the film is missing much of its first act. Underwater is one of those movies that tries to deliver exposition in the form of newspaper headlines and classified-looking documents that run in a montage under the opening credits, but those don’t really help except to tell us that there have been strange sightings and disturbances around these deep-sea operations.
And sure enough, as our little band of heroes attempt to walk on the ocean floor for a mile or so to reach some escape pods, they are attacked by some of the most generic monsters we’ve seen since the cardboard aliens streamed into New York City in The Avengers. Semi-humanoid and fishy, yet tentacled and somehow alien, the creatures here have possibly been released from under the ocean floor by drilling, but the idea is never fully fleshed out or explored. Their only reason for existence is to dutifully thin out our cast in predictable fashion.
Underwater is directed by William Eubank, who helmed the creepy if somewhat incoherent The Signal six years ago. With his new film, Eubank manages to create some claustrophobic atmosphere, as well as the occasional arresting image (the drill structure stands upon the ocean floor like a haunted house), but his handling of the action is hopeless. Not only is everything dark and murky, but the editing is jittery and spasmodic, leaving us incapable of even telling how one character gets killed. It doesn’t help that everyone is wearing the same bulky diving suits that make them look like astronauts.
To be fair, Eubank has little to work with in terms of the story itself, which is just a mash-up of tropes lifted off films ranging from Alien to The Abyss. It’s not clear what Stewart saw in this, but coming just months after her poorly received Charlie’s Angels (in which she was also a bright spot), we wouldn’t be surprised if she retreated back to the indie film market again. She nevertheless brings some badly needed presence and energy to the proceedings, and is clearly game to play an action hero, but we have a feeling she saw a very different or at least better developed script before she signed on.
As for the rest of the cast, Miller quickly grows tiresome as the standard wisecracking dude-bro, but at least he stands out: Cassel, Gallagher, et al don’t even get to do that much. There’s a revelation or two about each character late in the game, but by that time several are already dead and we never knew enough about them to make those disclosures have any impact.
An even bigger reveal toward the end of the picture is supposed to be a showstopper since the fishmen aren’t the only beasties down in the Mariana Trench. But with no real setup, the finale just comes across as one last desperate thing to throw against the wall. Underwater isn’t all bad. As mentioned earlier, Stewart has some fun and there are a few eerie sequences, but otherwise it’s clear why this waterlogged B-movie has only surfaced now since being shot more than two years ago.
Underwater is out in theaters Friday, Jan. 10.
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Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye