By Douglas Laman
Special to the Anna-Melissa Tribune
Movies have taught us many things, but they’ve been especially proactive in imparting wise advice regarding how dangerous underwater beasties can be. “Free Willy” and “Flipper” - they’re the exceptions, not the rule. Large bodies of water are where Jaws, the Kracken, the Creature from the Black Lagoon and all manner of deadly creatures roam.
Add the new Kristen Stewart vehicle “Underwater” to the long list of cinematic warnings about what lies beneath. Unfortunately, it’s far from the best moisture-heavy monster tale, though it isn’t without its charms. Plus, it’s certainly a good deal better than your typical January horror fodder like last week’s miserable feature “The Grudge.”
“Underwater” begins in media res, a bold choice that sees viewers and protagonist Norah Price (Stewart) being plunged headfirst into a catastrophe. Norah and 360-plus other people work on a drilling station located deep on the ocean floor. Isolated from the surface, they’re all now in grave danger as the base collapses around them. Only Norah and five other crew members, including research assistant Emily Haversham (Jessica Henwick) and Captain Lucien (Vincent Cassel), have survived and they find few options for getting out of what remains of the station. It appears their only recourse will be to put on some fancy diving suits and walk across the ocean floor to another nearby base.
Through most of its first-half, “Underwater” resembles “Deepwater Horizon” more than the creature-feature horror tale that the marketing has been selling. You don’t need some kind of monster when collapsing underwater buildings provide plenty of tension on their own. The intense interior scenes of Norah and company trying to make it from one crumbled room to the next are especially well-realized in terms of creating suspenseful intensity. This can be chalked up in part to how well director William Eubank conveys claustrophobia on a visual level, as well as the use of handmade sets that lend a tangible quality to the shattered environments the characters encounter.
Once the characters get out onto the ocean floor, the monster element begins to creep into the proceedings. There’s a quietly eerie nature to the way writers Brian Duffield and Adam Cozad gradually make the presence of an underwater monster apparent. At first, you see it lingering in the background or swimming just out of frame. It puts your guard up and causes you to question what you’re seeing. But this more restrained approach to the monster can’t stick around forever. Eventually, “Underwater” embraces having its aquatic creature show up prominently onscreen, which, unfortunately, is where the movie’s problems become more pronounced.
The moment “Underwater” embraces its inner monster-slasher movie, it gets way less interesting. This is mostly because the scares revolving around this monster hunting down the human characters aren’t that distinctive. Despite having such a unique backdrop like the bottom of the ocean at your disposal, not to mention a brand-new aquatic monster, “Underwater” just settles for a bunch of generic jump scares. Only one creepy scene, where Norah and Emily have to navigate a pack of sleeping sea monsters, sees “Underwater” take advantage of the unique horror-based tools at its disposal. Another issue is that, visually, the scenes set in the murky depths of the ocean frequently become difficult to make out. When the going gets really tough, it’s all too easy to lose track of which characters are where. Thematically, little of the monster mayhem ties into any of the lead characters on a specific personal level.
Norah, particularly, spends the middle portion of “Underwater” just reacting to CGI events happening around her. It’s remarkable how detached she is from so much of the central story. This could be any character reacting in horror to an underwater beastie. “Underwater’s” final 20 minutes try to rectify this issue by clumsily and hurriedly giving her a tragic backstory to tie into the plot, but by then it’s too late. That said, Stewart at least gives the role her all, and there is some real fun seeing the star of “Personal Shopper” headline a goofy monster movie. Stewart really deserved a more consistently successful and specifically detailed movie than “Underwater.” Much of this production is competent but it so rarely able to stake out its own identity. “Underwater” too often settles for the most basic kind of scares and characters despite having an interesting central premise and a great lead actor at its disposal. “Underwater’s” tendency to settle for the ordinary just doesn’t cut the mustard, especially considering all the endless options out there for aquatic-horror tales.
Douglas Laman is a film critic, who, when not watching movies, attends Collin College, hangs out with friends… and watches movies. For more of his work and ramblings, visit his website at www.landofthenerds.blogspot.com