Sometimes, character development is overrated. Underwater begins with a quiet scene — the film’s only quiet scene — of Kristen Stewart’s engineer Norah spotting a spider creeping along the sink in a bathroom of the massive undersea drilling operation where she works. They’re somewhere in the Mariana Trench, the deepest point of the world’s oceans, and Norah spares the spider, presumably because she feels for this poor arachnid soul stuck here at the bottom of the Earth with her. That’s all I have to know; I like Norah already.
And then, suddenly, all hell breaks loose, and keeps breaking for the rest of the movie. The big underwater station we’re on shakes violently, Norah starts running, and walls and ceilings and all sorts of other things start to collapse. Is it a breach, a malfunction, an earthquake, a monster? Why not all those things? The primary pleasure of Underwater is the spectacle of everything going wrong, all at once, as Norah and a small group of survivors — including their captain, played by Vincent Cassel — struggle to find safety. They decide that their only hope is to exit this structure, wearing some huge, newfangled diving outfits that will allow them to survive six miles deep, and slowly walk their way across the ocean floor to another, distant rig. Oh, and it’s pitch-black outside. Oh, and they’re running out of oxygen. Oh, and they’re going mad from the pressure. Oh, and there’s also, like, a thing out there. Maybe more than one. It’s all your fears — of the deep, of tight spaces, of the dark, of giant-creepy-crawly-squishy things — rolled into one.
Underwater might look on its surface like an Alien retread, but it doesn’t dole out the scares in artful, tensely conceived little pieces like that film does. Instead, it smothers you in them. It’s relentless, and voracious, with a kind of kitchen-sink bravado when it comes to jump scares. Even the monster, a genuinely Lovecraftian tentacular nightmare, keeps going: First it seems like it’s one thing, then another, then another, and then it turns out to be all the things, like it’s been pieced together from everything you ever found unthinkably gross or unthinkably unthinkable.
You could call Underwater the Mad Max: Fury Road of deep-sea catastrophe flicks, but it’s a far blunter instrument; it lacks that latter film’s shards of humanism or its operatic extravagance. Director William Eubank even steps on his own picture’s brief, half-hearted stabs at emotional texture: Occasional bits of dialogue are mostly drowned out by all the screeching, crashing metal; I think two of these people were supposed to be lovers, but I could be wrong. There are other character details, but they’re meager: One guy carries a small, stuffed plush bunny around with him. After another character dies (spoiler alert: someone dies), we see a photo of their long-departed daughter. At one point, Norah talks about an old ex who … Krraanng! Crgggunch! Kphoooom!
Underwater has been sitting on a shelf for some years, it seems, and it has some rough edges that suggest it’s been revised over that period. The film was shot in 2017, and reports from the time suggest that it was supposed to be about some underwater scientists, though I have no real idea if that’s just poor reporting or evidence of rewrites and/or reshoots. Regardless, the resulting movie is entertaining in its own insistent little way. It’s been scrubbed clean of anything resembling subtlety, or complexity, but it makes up for that with a hard-charging, ruthless desire to terrify us into submission. It doesn’t ask us to suspend our disbelief so much as it stomps on our disbelief, then bludgeons it. And it all kind of works. Anything seems possible down there.