Creature features belong to a distinct subgenre of films somewhere between horror and science fiction, and paradoxically are both incredibly successful whilst simultaneously being seen as derivative, yet there is a long history of them going back to some of the earliest films ever made. In fact, the backbone of these types of films can be traced to the first recorded tales painted on the inside of a cave wall. The earliest stories that remain are either of victorious hunts or survival against insurmountable odds and it is the latter into which the creature feature fits. They are narratives of base instinct, and when told well can be truly thrilling to the very core, so there is little wonder the subgenre is popular.
Underwater complies with the expectations of this type of film well, and there is a lot to enjoy, but there are some daring moments of deviance from the tried and tested formula which, in my opinion, pay off, to some degree. The setting itself is introduced through a visually-pleasing but clunky and frankly unnecessary opening credits sequence in which newspaper clippings and blueprints lay out a scene of an underwater drilling base in the Mariana Trench, some six or so miles below the surface of the ocean, where mysterious goings-on may have been mysteriously going on. The film proper then starts, and other than a few moments of over-explaining or the odd crowbarred reminder of the situation we all know is happening, the film mostly flows freely and rapidly.
Kristen Stewart plays the lead role as a pessimistic and slightly awkward engineer who is not the easiest or most friendly person, yet who apparently everyone is pleased to see. The slight contrivance of her being so popular despite her subdued character aside, the performance she delivers here is good and authentic, and contains a decent arc which is a rarity for a creature feature. As the film kicks in after the camera rapidly descends through the sea, she is preparing for her shift in this great underwater base when the structure collapses. We are immediately thrust into a survival situation and we follow Stewart throughout.
The lack of ambient story before disaster hits is a welcome shift from the usual everything-is-fine setup of these films, and a frantic pace ensues which is not let up throughout. The claustrophobia of being so deep underwater that the pressure would cause a human body to implode is brilliantly realised, with consistent acting and performances as well as outstanding effects.
The small cast includes some solid turns from Vincent Cassel as the drilling station’s captain, Mamoudou Athie as a drill worker, and T.J. Miller as a somewhat deranged fellow employee seemingly obsessed with Alice in Wonderland to the point that he scrawls a quote from the book on his diving suit and carries a toy rabbit at all times. There are some parallels with Wonderland in Stewart’s journey through the dark blue, though she is already down the rabbit-hole from the beginning, and the nods to the book were a nice touch, though not always particularly subtle. Alice in Wonderland is not the only literary work referenced here, but to point out the other would spoil the grand finale, and that is something worth beholding.
Director William Eubank presents this film mostly with panache, demonstrating an excellent eye for the unsettling, though the main criticism Underwater faces is that it does mostly follow the usual pattern. The site is collapsing, the only way to escape is very risky, and there might be something else lurking in the vicinity that brings even more danger. As the small group of survivors of the initial destruction attempt to flee, they begin to be picked off one by one. The conclusion that explains the cause of this deep-sea disaster is interesting and bold, but that does not prevent the film feeling very familiar as it progresses.
I liked Underwater, and to me it ticks all the boxes required for a creature feature. It may be derivative, but this film looked fantastic and the pacing was relentless. I was gripped and it was an enjoyable escape. Underwater will not change the world, nor redefine filmmaking, but it was above average for its subgenre and a good distraction for a few hours. It may not be high art, but Underwater is good fun.