“Can you admit we must leave?” If your nervous, sweaty-browed commander asks you that, it’s time to flee.
Tapping into imminent-danger fear is the cornerstone of any great thriller. Bring fright, or go home. Nothing in cinematographer-turned-director William Eubanks’ filmography (The Signal, Love) indicates that he’s capable of such a task. No evidence that he can create a sub-sea-level underworld that is realistic or completely fanciful. Still, he attempts, with some success and some failure.
The crew of a mining operation drills at the bottom of the ocean and work and live in supposedly fortified rigs. The earth shakes. The ground moves. A massive quake catches them off guard. Water floods facilities, killing many. Norah (Kristen Stewart, Twilight), an electrical engineer, systems manager Rodrigo (Mamoudou Athie, Patti Cake$), marine biology student Emily (Jessica Henwick, Game of Thrones), the captain, Lucien (Vincent Cassel, La Haine) and a few others survive.
Outside communications are cut off. Escape submarines wrecked. The options are few and the outlook bleak. Escape or die.
This viable premise is set in motion by screenwriters Brian Duffield (Insurgent and The Babysitter) and Adam Cozad (The Legend of Tarzan and Jack Ryan: The Shadow Recruit). Cohesive storytelling? They got it covered. Depth? Not much. The storyline weaves its way around the bottom of the deep blue sea in the most generic ways, with an ensemble of characters, who, though very modern, are not indelible.
So why would movie thriller fans stay in their seats? Nail-biting tension, eerie suspense, staccato pacing. Credit the editors (Brian Berdan, William Hoy and Todd E. Miller) for kinetic footage that flashes from face to face, object to object and scene to scene briskly. Rarely lingering more than seven seconds on any image.
Your eyes don’t have time to dawdle on the sets (production designer Naaman Marshall former Art Director for The Dark Knight) and costumes (Dorotka Sapinska, The Signal), which is in the film’s favor. By the time your retina sends a message to your brain that might question a detail, the camera has moved on.
A hue of murky colors (a spectrum of gray/green) makes the overall look unattractive. The visuals aren’t helped by dim lighting and dull-looking cinematography (Bojan Bazelli, Burlesque, King of New York). Shame on anyone who tries to compare what’s on view to Alien(s). Those films were pure eye-candy, in a way that propelled them into an upper stratosphere. That doesn’t happen here, it’s a wasted opportunity.
For 95 minutes, as the survivors careen from place to place, cursed by the sea and its creatures, Eubanks displays decent skill and technique within the confines of the production elements. There’s a consistent tone, a solid structure. He keeps the cast invigorated, fueled by anxiety and ready to work cohesively. However, competency shouldn’t be confused with brilliance or ingenuity. Given the chance to shine, Ridley Scott and James Cameron couldn’t hide their genius. Eubanks can’t muster his. At least not yet.
Genre fans, who can feed off the incessant, well-paced suspense up through middle of the film, may lose focus towards the end. Most notably when the tight rhythm dies and mistakes like a philosophical conversation between Norah and Emily brings things to a halt. They may question the plausibility of characters roaming around the bottom of the sea in heavy diving suits yet never displaying any debilitating physical effects. They may balk at the film’s been-done-before climax
The special effects on the premises, with leaks, explosions and door jams are fun to watch. The creatures, big and small, are not. They’re standard-issue and indistinguishable from any other horror/thriller. Again, this is where Alien(s) excelled. Their mysterious lifeforms are legendary. In this H2O hell, the build-up is far more intriguing than the reveal. It might have been better for the source of the ominous sounds and vibrations to have remained a mystery until the end (Blair Witch Project).
Stewart is completely believable as a take-charge anti-hero. She’s photogenic and interacts well with the rest of the cast, particularly Athie, Henwick and Cassel. It’s a surprisingly natural warrior performance, making her a good candidate for a superhero movie. Henwick takes Emily through the film’s most dramatic character arc, showing fear and determination in the right places. Cassel, as the alpha who shares ground with Norah, mixes testosterone with sensitivity perfectly. While John Gallagher Jr. (10 Cloverfield Lane) adds a much-needed dose of humor.
If tension, fear and good performances were all it took to make a satisfying thriller, Underwater would be complete. Without visual flair, mindboggling effects, astonishing creatures and an extraordinary climax, it feels underdeveloped.