Underwater seems to be one those movies the studios didn’t know what to do with, so they released it during a dump month, find out why it ended up being better than expected in this review.
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Dump months are where studios like to put out films that they deem as excrement based on test screenings, movies with an unknown cast or more genre flicks like teen films and an old and reliable favourite, horror.
Why are January and February considered dump months? Because they come right after the time where distributors force feed us films they think are going to be the best in terms of critical success, when people are far more frivolous with their money. Other factors include things like the awards season and NFL playoffs.
Dump months have given us some shockers—Bio Dome, Electra, Body of Evidence—but there have been some exceptions like Tremors, Get Out and From Dusk Till Dawn.
Meet their makers
Underwater is the last film to be released under the 20th Century Fox name since they were conquered by Disney and changed to 20th Century Studios, heralding the end of an era for the company. It’s also been three years since this film was completed and when people heard about the January 2020 release date, a lot of critics wrote it off. Which is a little unfair.
Granted a film about a group of people in a hostile environment facing an unknown threat is hardly an original concept, but it is one that a lot of people have a soft spot for. The writers—Adam Cozad who’s most notable achievement is probably The Legend of Tarzan and Brian Duffield who was responsible for Insurgent and highly enjoyable Netflix horror The Babysitter—seemed to be up to the task and director William Eubank also seems to know what he is doing.
The biggest criticism the movie has faced based on reactions to the trailers was that it looked like we were getting an underwater version of Alien meets the Poseidon Adventure. Yes the film does take a lot of cues from both movies, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing.
The story is about a groups of scientists stationed in an undersea mining base at the bottom of the Mariana trench at one of the deepest parts of the ocean, somewhere around 7 miles under the sea. It’s not the nicest of working environments, the pressure outside of the base would crush anyone not in an appropriate vessel (or suit in this case) and because it’s so deep there’s no light, except for any man made light they brought with them. A great opportunity for them to deliver some really claustrophobic, disorienting moments and a few jump scares.
There’s not a lot of setup here, the audience is thrown right into the action within the opening minutes. It’s unclear as to what they might be drilling for, or who any of the people are down here. It’s just humans in a really uninhabitable environment where things are going horribly wrong. The base starts to collapse and due to the pressure outside begins to implode.
We meet Norah, an engineer who is one minute bushing her teeth and the next running for her life. She bumps int Rodrigo, the both escape and then join survivors, Paul, Captain Lucien, Liam, Emily. They need to get to safety, which would be good enough really but they add to their woes by introducing some nasty creatures never before encountered. If you’ve seen any of those documentaries about the creatures you find on the bottom of the sea, you would know that that shit itself is scary enough.
There’s not a lot of exposition as to who the characters are so the audience may find this movie a little shallow (excuse the pun) however given the pace some may be content with playing the lottery of who dies first. In spite of this criticism, many will be content to pick up snippets of information about the characters and their lives as the situation they are in plays out. It’s actually a bold decision not to spoon-fed the audience too much, first and foremost because there’s one in every rag bunch with these films, the pragmatic guys, the hysterical one, the wisecracker, the femme fatal etc. but also, if an event did play out like this and people were reacting in a crisis it really isn’t all that realistic to sit down and indulge in a backstory about their lives.
Vincent Cassel plays Captain Lucien, Mamoudou Athie plays Rodrigo, Jessica Henpeck plays Emily, John Gallagher Jr plays Liam. It was interesting seeing TJ Miller in here as Paul, who is the obvious wisecracker because a lot of stuff has happened in this bloke’s life since 2017 and it turns out he’s a bit of a dick and a lot of people won’t work with him because of allegations of sexual assault and beating up UBER drivers don’t expect to see him around much in the future.
Kristin Stewart is and excellent actor and very good in the lead role as Norah, her part seems like an obvious homage to Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley. This is FINE. She’s copped a lot of shit over the years for playing Bella in Twilight, which is completely unfair. She kills it in this role.
While it’s a very generic story it is really well put together. Best known for his work on The Runs and 6 Underground, Bojan Bozelli’s cinematography is really tight capturing the claustrophobia of bing trapped at the bottom of the ocean really well. It’s also cool how the creatures aren’t too in your face, possibly because of budget constraints, but things always seem to work better with a slow reveal. The monsters are definitely a highlight in this film.
What was most impressive was that the sea floor scenes were actually shot on dark stages and they used a lot of CGI to add the density of the ocean around them. It’s incredibly effective and surprisingly realistic.
It has some tense moments that are cheapened by jump scares but audiences will appreciate the relentless pace of the film with very few opportunities to come up for air (pun intended).
Underwater is nothing new, but it is well crafted and while it doesn’t really exceed any expectations it does deserve better than to be a Disney dump month flick. At least it didn’t have to compete with much.