‘Underwater’ Dives Into Simple but Visceral Thrills and Terrors

Underwater” is an exercise in the creation of pure, at times silly yet never boring tension. Some movies are all about the production design, aesthetic choices, sound mix and visceral ride. This is one of those titles. Maybe once the end credits roll one can look back and feel goofy about having been taken in by it, but there’s little denying its 95 minutes can feel like 20. The premise is as simple as the title, and its style is a blender of countless other sci-fi thrillers, but notice how Kristen Stewart fits well in the role of action hero and blows things up quite good.

In the depths of the ocean Norah (Stewart) forms part of the crew of a drilling rig. Suddenly a chunk of the rig explodes and Norah along with fellow crew members Lucien (Vincent Cassel), Emily (Jessica Henwick), Paul (T.J. Miller) and Liam (John Gallagher Jr.) find themselves struggling to make it out of the ruins.  But as they seek answers for what happened a horrific discovery is made, strange and terrible creatures have been unleashed from the ocean depths and are surrounding the leftover rigs and other spaces where the crew find shelter. As some of the survivors are picked off the creatures, Norah is increasingly left as the one who must find the ultimate escape.

Describing the premise of “Underwater” is quick and to the point. Director William Eubank is not after a complicated treatise on underwater drilling and the human drama involved, his movie is all about making pulses quicken. There’s little exposition for the characters, we just need to know they are on an underwater rig under siege by creatures lurking in the shadowy corners of the ocean surface. What year is this? Who cares. Instead the immersive quality of “Underwater” is owed to cinematographer Bojan Bazelli, who has lent a baroque eye to genre films like “The Ring” and “A Cure for Wellness.” Before the film becomes a big action romp, Eubank and Bazelli generate great tension by not revealing too much. Consider a rather effective scene where crew members go walking through murky ocean floor looking for any companions and when the terror strikes it is in a haze, and we can’t always seek what rushes out of the dark. Sure Eubank has fun with some “Alien” winks, like a weird creature thrown on a table to be poked and prodded as it makes screeches. But what dominates the first two acts of this film is an overwhelming sense of claustrophobia, the true feeling of entrapment underwater. The screen is also consumed by the brilliant production design by Naaman Marshall, who was art director for “The Dark Knight” and “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.” He makes the underwater rigs of this film look like wet, metallic surfaces, with sections that conjure futuristic sewers. There are reminders here again of the “Alien” films. 

“Underwater” is more a showcase of notable talent, starting with the production team and including Kristen Stewart in the lead. The “Twilight” star has undergone many changes in tone over the years and here proves she has the look and grit for the kinds of roles made famous by icons like Sigourney Weaver. What’s required of Stewart in this movie is a display of muscular strength and attitude, which she does convincingly. With her face that evokes both resistance and uncertainty, Stewart has to carry the movie since everyone else is merely targets for the sea monsters to pick off. Someone will get sucked out of their suit, exploded into a splash of blood, another will be yanked into the dark, it’s up to Stewart to be the heroine. 

The other key cast members are the sea monsters, which work best when we see less of them. Their overall design is nothing particularly new. They have the look of aquatic cousins of the alien invaders of “A Quiet Place.” Hollywood still seems to believe terror is best defined by bald creepy crawlers with jaws capable of extending to fit precisely whatever person or vehicle they wish to bite. Still, Eubank skillfully uses the creatures at hand for effective jump scares, most memorably when Roah’s companions walk down flooded corridors they should avoid.

It is the third act where “Underwater” disappoints, trading in real terror for a rather bloated CGI show where the threat at hand becomes almost ridiculously large. Curiously, the film also tries to take itself too serious by the end, with Stewart delivering an odd, introspective voiceover more fit for one of her previous arthouse films like “Personal Shopper.” And right after what would be a good, striking final shot, Eubank does a small montage where he seems to imply this is film is actually a social commentary on corporate greed and environmentalism. 

Yet for most of its running time “Underwater” is an effective popcorn entertainment. Think of it as a light-sugar offering of James Cameron. It’s the visceral experience that matters, not the intricacies of the story. It’s easy to forget what the rigs are even doing or where the monsters come from, but if your date grips your arm to the point of leaving a bruise then you know the movie did its job.

Underwater” opens Jan. 10 in theaters nationwide.