I wrote this off as a dumped film, a January horror movie that I’d hate sitting through because that’s what happens in January. I skipped The Bye Bye Man and I regret nothing, so I skipped this as well. I made a mistake.
When I look at a horror/sci-fi movie I get nostalgic. I grew up on things like the weird adaptation of Michael Crichton’s Sphere (1998) and Paul W.S. Anderson’s Event Horizon (1997), claustrophobic little spookers that always ran around middling budgets and fun casts. Those are the movies that made me, and catering to that is going to get you a long way when I sit down in the theatre. I hate the campy, “so-bad-it’s-good-on-purpose” movies but when you have something that is genuinely trying I wind up having a much better time. Underwater is trying, and for the most part it succeeds.
Underwater is a 2017 film that was shelved after the cancelling of TJ Miller, only released after a bit of time and tossed into the 2020 January “schlock-and-awe” slot as previously mentioned. It’s got a pretty great cast outside of TJ Miller, and even he isn’t really a problem in it. Kristen Stewart plays Norah Price, a mechanical engineer working on a drilling station in the Mariana Trench. They’re six miles underwater in a closed environment with zero natural light. Almost immediately the place is stuck by an earthquake and lives are lost. She joins with Captain Lucien (Vincent Cassel), Paul Abel (TJ Miller), biologist Emily Haversham (Jessica Henwick) and her engineer boyfriend Liam Smith (John Gallagher Jr.), and some sort of scientist Rodrigo Nagenda (Mamoudou Athie). When the underwater rig is deemed doomed they’re forced to head into flooding tunnels, outside in diving suits, and creepy cave systems to reach a nearby rig and take the escape pods to the surface. Oh, and there are creatures here.
Stewart and Cassel do the heavy lifting here. I, like most film fans, have really come around on Kristen Stewart since her vampire-horny days. The woman has shown over and over again that she’s got chops beyond what many can fathom, working with such a pathos and empathy that it becomes hard to ignore her onscreen presence. Norah Price has clearly lost someone she loves and taken a job at the bottom of the sea in an attempt to escape. We see some of the same energy in Vincent Cassel’s character, a longing sadness that begins expanding as the environment closes in around the group. Works great, honestly, and gives those looking for an emotional core to have something to latch onto. Our other great performances come from John Gallagher Jr. and Jessica Henwick, who have believable chemistry and are actually quite sweet onscreen together. There’s even enough meat on Miller’s character to not hate him, though the writers thought of a few odd ticks to keep him comedic relief. He’s obnoxious, but it never overtakes the film.
But I know you. I know you’re not here for pretty words, performances with enough empathic connective tissue to get onboard with, and decent character development. You’re here to watch sci-fi creatures mess shit up, and you get it. The designs are weird and fun, expansive in a way that I don’t quite understand (picture if the Creature from the Black Lagoon were a jellyfish), and they feel unsettling and unnatural. There’s one moment with the creature effects, right near the end, that was so incredible that I began pumping my fist in the air with sheer joy at the ridiculousness of it. This is what you’re here for and it pays off in spades.
All of this insane, tight, and murky excitement is lifted up by an absolutely perfect score from Marco Beltrami. It rings with shades of what Elliot Goldenthal did with his score for Sphere, but there’s a modernist take on it with the electronics. The repetitive, thumping rhythms feel like a panic attack and it rotates with an eerie, echoing sound in the quieter moments. Very few bits of the film don’t have some sort of score, and while that often takes away from quieter moments Beltrami instead adds tension and mystery to the tone of the entire exercise. Meshing strings, synth, piano, and thundering orchestral sounds, the guy is able to take this schlocky B-movie and deliver the legitimate best piece of film music I’ve heard all year. I know 2020 is weird, what with movies cancelled and America a barren wasteland of screw-ups, but I feel happy knowing we got something this beautiful in the midst of all that.
Listen, this isn’t going to blow you away as a piece of cinematic wonder and awe. It’s a creature feature, with a couple of fun sci-fi monster jump scares and a whole lot of great atmosphere. Everything looks great, no actor delivers a bad performance, and it sounds like a million bucks. This is one of my favorite films of the year so far, and I cannot wait to see more like this come down the pipeline.