Underwater review – Kristen Stewart's soggy, silly monster movie

A much-delayed attempt to resurrect the Alien formula underwater has some effective moments but fails to justify its own existence

Diving into the January release schedule, unofficial dumping ground of studios, can give one a sinking feeling here in the US. After being spoiled by the extravagant riches of awards season, a brief, packed period overflowing with high-quality films crafted with care and precision, we’re then given malformed byproducts, perhaps promising on paper but quite often punishing on screen. Previous years have offered the Matthew McConaughey stinker Serenity, the masochistically unfunny spoof Fifty Shades of Black and, just last week, an entirely unnecessary redo of The Grudge.

Filmed three years ago and finally being unleashed on audiences with minimal fanfare, the Alien-aping sci-fi thriller Underwater is the most frustrating kind of January movie: one that’s almost, kind of, nearly, worth seeing. It’s a good movie that got soggy, turning it into an average one instead, a script with blurred pages, ink seeping into one big murky splurge. The setup is simple, and loosely familiar to genre fans. A crew of aquatic researchers are left in disarray when an earthquake destroys most of their facility. They’re unsure what caused it but there are concerns that the drilling team they work alongside have found something that should have been left buried. You know the deal.

For a while, Underwater’s brisk goofiness is, if anything, a refreshing palate cleanser after the more serious-minded offerings of late. There’s an impressively ominous scene-setter as we glide all the way down, accompanied by an unsettlingly sinister score, and once we’re onboard, we’re thrown straight into the action as our heroine, played by Kristen Stewart, fights to survive a tense sequence of destruction. It continues to move along at a fair lick and while for the most part, it recalls better, smarter examples of the genre, the bare minimum is done well enough. But as the last act comes into view, so does a creeping realisation that, er, that’s all there is because when the formula does allow space for innovation, the script from Brian Duffield and Adam Cozad sticks a bit too closely to well-recycled beats, originated in Alien and never far from our screens since.

When the crew members inevitably start getting picked off, their death scenes, because of the film’s mass-audience-pleasing PG-13 rating, are largely incoherent. At one point a character has to remind someone, and us, that a death actually did just occur. It’s of course entirely possible to construct a film such as this with a lower rating in mind, but the script’s insistence on including theoretically gory moments suggests that a neutering has taken place and sloppy studio tampering has left the movie hopelessly defanged. The three years that it has taken for the film to reach us has aged it in a number of ways but most notably in the decision to cast TJ Miller as comedy support, a tiresome jester who has since been mercifully pushed aside by the industry. He’s especially grating here, spewing unfunny quips to a cast of actors who find it hard to suppress their fatigue.

Kristen Stewart stars in Twentieth Century Fox’s “Underwater”.
Kristen Stewart in Underwater. Photograph: Alan Markfield

It has not been a great time for Stewart of late, an actor who had managed, quite brilliantly, to escape the shadow of the Twilight franchise to become an intriguingly unknowable arthouse darling. But her excursions back into the mainstream continue to be ill-advised, and while she tried her best to bring life to Elizabeth Banks’s shoddy Charlie’s Angels script, the film proved to be one of 2019’s biggest flops. She’s decent enough here in a role that mostly requires her to recite technical jargon and fix things while in her underwear, a directorial decision employed so often that it starts to border on creepy. Her character also conforms to the sci-fi rule that dictates that a female lead must also be grieving, but while it added pathos to both Gravity and Arrival, it feels tacked-on here, and a late stage attempt to add emotional resonance sinks fast.

What frustrates me most about Underwater is just how very little it brings to the table. It’s a solid, competently directed regurgitation of an oft-told tale that never manages to justify its existence. With a budget of around $80m, that is not good enough. As I entered the screening I was handed a scrap of paper that implored me not to reveal any of the film’s “surprises and plot twists” and as I left, I was scratching my head trying to figure out what those were supposed to be. The only surprise here is why film-makers are still trying to remake Alien rather than trying to make something new.

  • Underwater is out in the US on 10 January and in the UK on 31 January.


Benjamin Lee

The GuardianTramp

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