Review: Underwater

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PLOT: The survivors of a devastating explosion at an underwater lab eleven thousand meters deep, whose only shot at survival means a walk along the ocean floor with insufficient oxygen, find themselves face-to-face with a terrifying creature from the depths of the sea.

REVIEW: UNDERWATER feels like a nineties movie, and I don’t mean that as a bad thing. Back in that era, we used to routinely get B-level ALIEN clones, movies like DEEP RISING, THE RELIC, and VIRUS, which scratched a genre itch we all had, even if we all knew going in they’d ultimately be disposable. While this isn’t the first ALIEN clone we’ve gotten in the last few years (LIFE), UNDERWATER is the only one that feels designed to be a one-off and simply is what it is – a decent sci-fi horror programmer. That’s where its ambitions end, and by that metric is pretty decent entertainment.

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It’s helped by a particularly strong cast, led by a game Kristen Stewart, who’s ideally cast as the Ripley-style hero. She’s very closely patterned on Sigourney Weaver, with a buzzcut reminiscent of the one she wore in ALIEN 3, and while she doesn’t rock a spacesuit, the underwater gear she spends most of the movie in looks close enough. Her character, Norah, a mechanical engineer, is shown to be recovering from the loss of an ex-boyfriend or husband, with us only getting some (unnecessary) exposition towards the end, with it giving her added motivation in her mission to make sure all of the survivors get out alive.

Shot before CHARLIE’S ANGELS, UNDERWATER marks her return to mainstream studio filmmaking, with her now mostly known for her terrific work in euro-centric arthouse fare like PERSONAL SHOPPER. She’s matured into a great actress and throws herself into the part here, seemingly doing a lot of her own stunts and putting enough emotion into it that no one could ever accuse her of phoning it in. It’s not a top-notch vehicle for her, but it proves Hollywood needs to take a closer look at her next time they’re casting a female lead in a big-budget tentpole.

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Director William Eubank (LOVE, THE SIGNAL) surrounds her with a top-notch supporting cast, although they’re all so closely modeled on the ALIEN ensemble one wishes they had tried to be a least a bit more original. It’s pretty glaring with Vincent Cassel the heroic captain modeled on Tom Skerritt, while John Gallagher Jr. is the blue-collar guy in the Yaphet Kotto mold. Jessica Henwick is the one who constantly cries, much like Veronica Cartwright, Mamoudou Athie is the nice, doomed one (John Hurt) while T.J. Miller is doing Harry Dean Stanton as the alleged comic relief (although his performance is never particularly comic or a relief).

Really, the best way to describe this is as “ALIEN under the sea”, similar to DEEP STAR SIX and LEVIATHAN back in the eighties, with some of the look of THE ABYSS thrown in for good measure. It’s not the least bit original, but at just over ninety minutes it moves well and the actors, especially Stewart and Cassel, keep you invested. Eubank gives this some style, with good production design, although the aliens look bland – basically, they’re just another oozy CGI creation – not better or worse than the ones in other ALIEN clones. The editing also strikes me as a little overly enthusiastic, as coupled with the dark photography, some of the action scenes are tough to decipher (probably to hold on to that PG-13). However, some of the set pieces are solid, particularly the harrowing underwater explosion that starts the movie off.

In the end, UNDERWATER is just another ALIEN clone, but by that metric, it’s not a bad one. It has a better cast than usual and enough energy to make it a fun, entertaining watch and far better than its first week of January release date suggests. If you go in with managed expectations, you’ll probably have fun with it.