A Lovecraftian homage to 70s-80s science-fiction horror, William Eubank’s Underwater offers little to reinvent its deep-seated genre conventions — yet it remains a refreshing anomaly among recent Hollywood releases. Eubank’s third feature represents a well-desired oddity: the high-budget, high-concept, and imaginative blockbuster that is not shackled by the chains of an existing film franchise. Frantic from start to finish, Underwater chronicles a crew of scientists and engineers as they escape from their collapsing laboratory at the bottom of the sea — catastrophe set off by an unknown catalyst, swiftly revealed to be mysterious creatures.
Anchored by a sturdy cast, Underwater can be divided into two distinct acts: the first is dedicated to the tense and frenetic spectacle of said escape, while the second veers into the film’s Lovecraftian elements — bumping the Thalassophobia factor up to eleven — and embraces its roots as a pulpy creature feature.
Lead actress Kristen Stewart takes on the role of Norah Price, a mechanical engineer at the Kepler 822 research and drilling facility who must unite with her colleagues Rodrigo (Mamoudou Athie) and Paul (T.J. Miller), biologists Emily (Jessica Henwick) and Liam (John Gallagher Jr.), and Captain Lucien (Vincent Cassel) to survive. While not the most star-studded roster — Stewart and Cassel are the most noteworthy — the performances on display are all-around solid.
Each character is well-defined and given traits that appropriately suit their profession, with personalities conveyed through action rather than words (e.g., Liam’s protective demeanor). Underwater has no patience for exposition; the film’s world building and contextual setting is delivered entirely visually within the brief headline-style opening sequence. The script is taut, but the film’s emotional hook remains Stewart — she is, above all else, the star of the film and channels Ellen Ripley in her performance as the stoic, but caring, Norah Price.
Fittingly, Underwater is a film that wears its influences on its sleeve, and Ridley Scott’s Alien is inarguably Eubank’s greatest inspiration. Down to the mirroring female leads and stark structural similarities, Underwater is largely conceptually indebted to Alien — though it retains individuality through creative deviations (i.e., Eubank’s Lovecraftian flair). This comparison may appear negative, and to many it may be, yet Underwater is at its best when indulging in the sensationalist theatrics of films like Alien or The Abyss. It is less of a direct copy, rather more of a pastiche. Eubank’s premise is formalist in nature, so he never meanders; the film is fast paced when necessary, anxious when needed, and lacks an ounce of fat. While not quite thematically complex, broad environmental implications are interwoven — the story can be interpreted as a hyperbolic counter response to deep-sea drilling, where the creatures represent nature’s defense mechanism against anthropogenic activity.
Although their presence forebodes throughout, the creatures of Underwater are primarily hidden for much of the runtime — to the film’s benefit. Eubank, in a “less is more” fashion, depicts the creatures in sparse bursts, allowing them to linger and fester in the minds of the viewer. This also feeds into the film’s Lovecraftian horror — set in the unknown all-encompassing deep sea, there is a sense that the characters are oblivious to the bigger picture — that there is a larger looming threat at hand. Eubank pulls at these strings to create an effective sense of dread that escalates as the plot progresses and the crew’s predicament worsens. The careful plotting leads to the inevitable larger-than-life reveal at the climax, which in turn makes the payoff far more effective. However, much of this would be ineffective if not for Bojan Bazelli’s stunning cinematography, which creates the feel of a well-realized and expansive setting.
Is Underwater a masterpiece? No, and it is not trying to be one. Eubank is not intent on creating a thought-provoking masterwork, nor does he reinvigorate or break new ground. Underwater is simply a lean, mean high-concept machine that serves as an enjoyable throwback to films of a bygone era. Despite being, in all probability, a one-and-done watch, it still makes for quality entertainment. One can at least appreciate the irregularity of its existence — a film out of time.