Film review: ‘UNDERWATER’ by Nick Gardener from ‘Built For Speed’

Ridley Scott’s Alien is rightly regarded as a classic fusion of sci-fi and horror. Not surprisingly this film has led to countless imitations. While taking inspiration from a masterpiece is understandable, imitation jeopardises a film’s individuality and overall impact. This is the case with the latest Alien-inspired sci fi thriller Underwater. From its story of a working-class crew in a confined and remote location being besieged by monsters to its grungy but elaborate production design full of long creepy passageways lined with ducts and tubes and even to some of its specific shot selections, this film closely mimics Alien. Consequently, despite its technically proficiency and impressive visuals, Underwater is a little too familiar and at times feels like dramatically hollow impersonation.

Here, Kristen Stewart plays Norah a mechanical engineer working as part of a drilling team on a rig seven miles beneath the ocean surface in the Mariana Trench. When what seems to be an earthquake destroys most of the facility, the crew’s only hope for survival is to walk a mile across the ocean floor to another base. The perils of escaping a collapsing mining rig at the bottom of the ocean might seem bad enough but there’s also sea monster waiting for them and in accordance with monster movie lore, crew members are picked off one at a time.

Director William Eubank (who has mostly worked as a cinematographer) seems well aware that this film is short on original ideas as he keeps the pace quick and the running time appropriately brief at 95 minutes. The film’s rapid speed is occasionally a problem, though, as the action becomes frenzied and with characters de-identified by their (once again Alien-like) deep sea survival suits flailing around in the murky depths it’s often hard to tell what the hell is going on and which character the creatures are munching. Still, Eubank and cinematographer Bojan Bazelli (Kalifornia, The Ring, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales) conjure some vivid, tense, convincing and often threatening images of an undersea environment as characters lumber precariously through the dark ocean world waiting for a creature to get them. The effect is enhanced by Marco Beltrami and Brandon Roberts’ moody and dramatic score.

As the ‘Ripley’ of the piece, Kristen Stewart effectively mixes stoicism and resourcefulness with nervous uncertainty. The attempt to give her character greater poignancy by having her deliver the occasional sombre voice-over, however, has little effect. Vincent Cassel, fine actor that he is, provides strong support as the gnarly rig commander Captain Lucien. TJ Miller, however, is frequently annoying as the rig’s resident smart-ass prankster and the film’s attempted comedy relief.

The creatures here are impressively aggressive but look too much like the many sinewy cgi beasties we’ve seen in sci-fi movies in recent years. It’s clear they’re a kind if hell-spawn birthed as a result of human hubris, in this case our arrogant and selfish plundering of the environment. This idea of monsters representing nature rebelling against destructive humanity has been done before and better, though, in Godzilla and numerous giant bug movies from the 1950s.

While the lack of originality in Underwater is glaring and possibly off-putting to some, it’s likely others will still find this a well-constructed and at times an exciting creature feature.

Nick’s rating: ***

Genre: Science fiction/ horror.

Classification: M.

Director(s): William Eubank.

Release date: 23rd Jan 2020.

Running time: 95 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast.

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