Dept. of Mariana Retrenchment


“Life’s Abyss and then you die… ” This was the regular lament of the cast and crew who struggled through the making of James Cameron’s 1989 film The Abyss, a film, and a phrase, I couldn’t help thinking about while watching Underwater .

Both films feature the crew of an undersea drilling rig fighting for survival after a catastrophe cuts them off from the surface. Both crews even run into their own “non-terrestrial intelligences” (NTI), although the ones Kristen Stewart runs into are a lot less friendly than the ones from The Abyss. They’re a bit more like the ones from Cameron’s Aliens.

That’s not to say that director William Eubank (helmer of 2014’s intriguing but ultimately unsatisfying The Signal) doesn’t have anything new to add to this formula. Wisely skipping over any unnecessary exposition, the film dives straight into the action, with the Kepler 822 station impressively coming apart at the seams before our characters have even been introduced.

With all escape pods damaged beyond repair, the six survivors – including Kristen Stewart’s mechanical engineer Norah, Captain Vincent Cassel, “intern” Jessica Henwick and a mostly restrained T.J. Miller as Paul – need to make their way even deeper down from the damaged station to a nearby drilling platform to hopefully find some working escape pods. The only problem with this plan is that they have to make their way to the drill outside, in the dark, at the very bottom of the Mariana Trench, with suits that aren’t designed to withstand that much pressure for that long, and which only support a limited supply of oxygen.

And this is where one of the coolest aspects of the film come in. The Suits.

There are so few decent press images of the suits I had to take a pic of the standee with my phone.

The deep sea pressure diving suits that the crew uses are instantly iconic. Taking cues from John Mollo’s samurai and Moebius (Jean Giraud) inspired spacesuits from the original Alien, the Terran marine spacesuits from Starcraft and Warhammer 40K’s Space Marines, despite their sci-fi appearance the bulky suits ground the actors performances.

This heightened sense of realism and threat is further supported by the impressive effects as the crew clamber around outside the damaged station and that’s before they spot SOMETHING moving around out there.

It was only after watching the movie that I wondered how exactly the filmmakers had shot the underwater sequences. Had they, like Cameron committed to shooting the whole film actually underwater? Imagine my surprise when I discovered that most of the undersea footage was shot “dry-for-wet” on a sound stage with the water effects added in later by CGI! Sometimes the crew weren’t even wearing all of their suits! It’s a testament to the effects team’s excellent work that this never crossed my mind while watching I film.

It’s a pity then that this flair in design and production doesn’t quite extend to the storytelling. We barely learn anything about the characters or what the film is trying to say, apart from some vague themes regarding cynicism vs optimism and how people deal with grief, that feel tacked on and not really organic to the characters.

A bigger problem is that for an undersea monster movie, it’s not all that scary. It manages tense at times but never truly terrifying. Often the film sabotages its own tension building by cutting away after something truly horrifying happens, instead of staying with the cast as they deal with this new trauma.

As the film meanders to a close, it starts to reach out for some bigger themes but doesn’t quite arrive at them. In the end Underwater boasts a decent cast, some cool monsters and even cooler suits but ends up being just “fine”. A decent monster B-movie that could have been so much more.

95 minutes
Director: William Eubank
Writers: Brian Duffield and Adam Cozad.
Cast: Kristen Stewart, Jessica Henwick, T.J. Miller, Vincent Cassel, John Gallagher Jr., and Mamoudou Athie

Irish Film lover lost in Malaysia. Co-host of Malaysia's longest running podcast (movie related or otherwise ) McYapandFries and frequent cryer in movies. Ask me about "The Ice Pirates"

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