'Underwater' (2019) Review: Jawlien
When Martin Scorsese compared superhero movies to theme park rides, he did so attracting the ire of fans the world over. Though his comments weren’t unfounded, I couldn’t help but find them reductive. A theme park ride has little to no story, character types instead of characters, and the plot is centred around the action rather than any meaningful message or character arc. Superhero movies aren’t like that, but ‘Underwater’ certainly is.
The movie opens with a catastrophe, wasting no time getting to the meat of the matter. ‘Underwater’ seeks to give you a survival experience that’s visually arresting. You’re following a group of crew members at an underwater research station that has mysteriously started to flood. Their only hope for survival is to walk across the ocean floor, armed with nothing but their wits, and some high tech scuba suits, to a neighbouring station. To make matters worse, something seems to have awoken beneath the depths, and it has an appetite for scared survivors.
Watching the movie I definitely felt a sense of dread. The situation the characters are in strikes the right level of hopelessness. The movie presents a number of problems for the characters to solve, and takes joy in showing you how that’s done. I found myself invested in the details, rather than in the characters themselves. Most of which don’t offer much to go off of. The dialogue is hard to hear at times, leaving you to do the heavy lifting to listen for any history a character might have.
Kristen Stewart plays Norah. A grieving yet capable mechanical engineer, leading the survivors, and carrying the film. The rest of the cast helps to maintain the tension, in more ways than simply waiting for their turn to bite the dust. Except for TJ Miller. His role is essentially light comic relief. I can only think his inclusion was designed to balance the film’s unending gloom, but he ends up undercutting whatever drama is created, and results only in irritating the audience.
It’s easy to call ‘Underwater’ derivative. It wears its inspiration on its sleeve. The main character feels like she was designed to be a modern day Ripley, and the way in which the creature is handled feels like a mix between Alien & Jaws (Jawlien?). Still, derivative is not equivalent to uninteresting. There’s plenty a film can do standing on the shoulders of giant monsters. ‘Underwater’ is a film with a lot of potential. It just never dives deep enough to get there.
That’s partially because the film feels like it’s at war with itself. One moment, it’s a hardened survival story about a workforce suffering the apathy of a greedy corporation. The next, it’s a creature feature. Then there’s a message about the environment fighting back against the human invasion. Even the direction feels inconsistent. The film is claustrophobic at several times but then wants to tap into the fear of wide open darkness. It does none of this poorly, but trying to capture so much at once only makes the film suffer.
‘Underwater’ is not a bad film. It looks stunning, and has an internal logic to it that keeps you invested in the methodology of survival. The characters leave something to be desired, but they rise above being mere cannon fodder for a cheap attempt at tension. It’s well paced, and well acted, but doesn’t sink its teeth into you like it could. Nothing in ‘Underwater’ will stay with you, but you’ll enjoy watching it while it’s on.
Rating: Catch It On Cable.