Review: Underwater (2020)

January is a particularly difficult month for most blockbuster releases. Commonly referred to as a dump month in the industry, films released during this time tend to fall into one of several specific categories that distributors feel will impact their commercial and critical performances: smaller budgets or lesser known stars, poor performances with test audiences, niche audiences (like teenage or young adult viewers), or genre films – most notably horror.

Yet, for all the lackluster films that have come and gone with little fanfare, there is occasionally a diamond in the rough. Even if it didn’t gain much notoriety during its run in theaters, there was one movie that swam its way into a suspenseful and surprisingly enjoyable foothold in the horror genre: Underwater, starring Kristen Stewart and the big bad Cthulhu himself. Based on the premise and early trailers, it drew many criticisms of similarities to Ridley Scott’s Alien franchise – except based underwater instead of in space – but the film breathes a welcoming originality into the mysterious enemies that slowly pick off the cast one by one.

Stewart stars as Norah Price, a mechanical engineer working on a deep-sea drill rig at the bottom of the Mariana Trench. Right at the beginning, the rig is struck by an earthquake that damages the majority of the safeguard systems, forcing her and several other survivors to don pressurized diving suits and walk a mile across the ocean floor to the secondary station for rescue. Once outside, the survivors become aware too late of mysterious stalkers lurking just beyond their limited range of sight, dogging them all the way to the new station and depleting their numbers one by one. The audience is given fleeting glances at the creature designs up until roughly the halfway point, when we are treated to a roughly 8 foot tall, pale humanoid figure with spindly webbed arms and a tooth-studded mouth not unlike that of an angler fish. It’s a wonderfully unique design for a creature that’s spent its whole life in darkness and enormous water pressure, and its fearsome appearance is amplified when the trio of survivors makes it to the secondary station only to find that the handful of creatures stalking them are merely adolescents at best. In the climactic race to the only remaining escape pods, ominous flashes of flare guns and sparking electronics reveal a hulking monstrosity silhouetted against the edge of the trench – almost as big as the station itself, the gigantic version spouts additional tentacles from its face and gleaming eyes filled with alien intelligence.

While the film concludes on a somewhat somber note and will probably not get a sequel, a montage over the closing credits reveals the company behind the drilling rig has covered up the real reason of the destruction and plans to continue drillings, possibly hinting that the company knows what’s down there and wants to try again. The story is simple, somewhat predictable, and the limited cast all but guarantees you know at least half of them won’t make it to the credits. However, in terms of pure entertainment, it’s a delightful romp that makes the most of its PG-13 rating.