UNDERWATER - Review - We Are Movie Geeks



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A casual glance at this film’s poster art may lead you to think you’re headed back to the deep, dark reaches of outer space, with the photo of the flick’s leading lady peering out from a big bulky spacesuit, minus the “bubble” glass helmet ala’ Natalie Portman in LUCY IN THE SKY or Brad Pitt in AD ASTRA. But then, you’d glance down to the film’s title. Hmmm… that’s odd, this costume looks nothing like a wet suit or the scuba gear that Lloyd Bridges made familiar on TV every week in the classic “Sea Hunt”. And later, James Bond would use to do battle starting with THUNDERBALL. That’s because all of this flick takes place, not in deep space but in the deep, dark, black (not blue) sea. And that big cumbersome outfit is made to protect the story’s characters from the enormous pounds of pressure miles and miles from the sun and oxygen, not above the sky, but down, down in the very dangerous unexplored depths of the UNDERWATER part of this planet.

We’re brought up to speed (and tossed into the “deep end”) via the montage of maps and news stories that are the “backdrop” for the film’s opening titles. In the deepest part of the world’s waterways, the Mariana Trench an energy company has erected an oil drill at the very bottom, nearly seven miles down with a crew of 300, the Roebuck rig. Hundreds of feet above that, connected to it is the Kepler station where scientists do research and keep everything running smoothly with tons of monitoring equipment. That’s where we first encounter an engineer named Norah (Kristen Stewart) as she brushes her teeth at the beginning of another day, though without the sun it’s tough to tell. She’s on edge after seeing a spider (how did it get there) crawling out of the sink. Then she feels a drop of water from above. Suddenly the place erupts in chaos as the walls begin to collapse, no doubt due to an earthquake. She and another crewman, Rodrigo (Mamoudou Athie) race to find other survivors. They pull the unusually jovial Paul (T.J. Miller) out of the rubble. The trio makes it to the escape pod (tiny craft that zips up to the surface) station where the Kepler’s Captain Lucien (Vincent Cassel) informs them that the pods are damaged beyond repair. Their only chance for life is down to the Roebuck facility. After finding a pair of biologists, Emily (Jessica Henwick) and Liam (John Gallagher, Jr.), the group dons the deep-diving suits and jump in the transport which will only take them to the bottom, hundreds of feet from the drill rig’s entrance. They’ll have to walk along the ocean’s floor in near darkness and follow the pipe to the Roebuck’s front door. But something else is down there with them. Even if they make the long trek, can they survive an assault from these mysterious forces from a depth never fully explored by man?

Stewart is in full-out action hero mode (like a just out of space college Ellen Ripley), building on the more dynamic screen persona from last year’s little-seen reboot of CHARLIE’S ANGELS, though this flick was made nearly two years prior. Unfortunately, she’s given little to do other than barking encouragements (“C’mon, you can make it, lessgo’!”), cracking open computers, and squeezing through tight space (well, she is the most petite of the surviving crew). A bit of her back story is hinted as she gazes at a well-worn photo of her and a lost love (she does get to tell of their tragic parting right before the big finale’), but her main function is to be tossed about by the “beasties” and the quake aftershocks. The same could be said for Cassel’s battered Captain Lucien (he’s got an arm in a harness when we first meet him). He’s the “family man”, but he’s hiding some dark secrets as he attempts to be realistic while not adding more gloom to their slim chances. Also trying to take the ‘edge’ off is Miller as the flick’s “comic relief”, a big gum-chewing wiseguy who’s toting around a stuffed bunny (?), which may be meant to give him a child-like quality. Henwick (so great on the Netflix/Marvel “Iron Fist” show) gets to do most of the “damsel in distress” screaming that the filmmakers think adds to the tension, but becomes grating ( Stewart wisely opted out of the hysterics). Still, she fares better than Gallagher as her mate, who spends most of the second half injured and dragged about like a delirious duffle bag. Most of them function as the teen in a slasher flick making us guess which one will be picked off and when.

Director William Eubank shows great promise as he switches from silent “haunted old factory” desolation to collapsing Hellscape in those opening minutes (kudos for the terror not being Norah’s “day-mare”) until the too familiar gathering for the “quest for escape” marches on. Its influences then begin to be evident. The obvious inspirations are ALIEN and its sequel ALIENS, though it’s more reminiscent of the undersea variations of 1989, not the terrific one, THE ABYSS. No, this is closer to the twin soggy cheese-fests DEEP STAR SIX and LEVIATHAN. The gang lumbers about in the heavy “Michelin-man” outfits as the whispy snaggle-fanged fleshy CGI fleshpots lunge from the darkness (except for Norah who can actually dash at a brisk pace if needed by the soggy script). Much is made of the fragility of these deep pressure suits (early on, one expendable’s helmet begins to crack right after locking it into place), but one of the more aggressive creatures halfway swallows a human who emerges with barely a loose stitching. I suppose the blackness of the depths hides the video game “rubbery bounce” of the beasts, though the dim lighting frustrates the audience more than it frightens. This is certainly the case when the main monster, kind of a “cut-rate” Kraken, sloshes over the busted -down drilling rig. This all adds to the tedium, making the film feel much longer than its meager 90 minutes. This is all SF-style action antic we’ve seen before, done with more skill and drama. UNDERWATER never swims or even floats. It sinks and it stinks. Glub. Glub.

1/2 Out of 4

Jim Batts was a contestant on the movie edition of TV's "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" in 2009 and has been a member of the St. Louis Film Critics organization since 2013.

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