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Review: ‘Underwater’ fails to add anything new to survival-thriller genre

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(Photo courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox)

Well… it’s January, folks. That means it’s time to struggle through a slew of mediocre movies until the exciting ones show up, and director William Eubank’s “Underwater” is here to get things started.

After wrapping production all the way back in 2017, “Underwater” ended up trapped in the Disney-Fox merger, and as a result, the film was delayed all the way until 2020 – hence the appearance of since-cancelled actor T.J. Miller. However, it may have been a better decision for all parties involved if the thing had just been scrapped altogether.

The premise is simple enough. Think “Alien,” but get this – it’s underwater. Norah (Kristen Stewart), an underwater mechanical engineer, is stationed on a subterranean laboratory seven miles below the ocean’s surface. When an earthquake strikes, the entire station is devastated by a string of pressure breaches, leaving Norah and a handful of survivors in desperate need of rescue. The escapes pods are gone, oxygen is running dangerously low, and the station could go down any second. The only shot at survival requires the crew suit up in astronaut-style gear and make the one-mile trek across the bottom of the ocean to a neighboring lab. But as they journey into the pitch-black unknown of the seafloor, they quickly realize it may not have been an earthquake that triggered this disaster after all.

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Kristen Stewart as Norah Price in “Underwater.” (Photo courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox)

“Underwater” could be a solid action-thriller if it wasn’t a story that has already been told time and time again. Survivors in dire circumstances slowly getting picked off one by one by a mysterious foreign creature all taking place in dark, claustrophobic spaces. We’ve seen this done, and we’ve seen it done better – which begs the question, did we really need another movie like this if it doesn’t add anything new to the genre? It follows typical survival genre tropes and utilizes weak jump scares in place of any sense of genuine fear.

One thing it does have working in its favor is the fact that it is, in fact, underwater. Unlike so many of these stories set in space, the ocean deep is just as mysterious and frightening as anything that takes place in outer space. If “Underwater” leaves any positive lasting effect, maybe it will serve as a martyr to pave the way for more films to join it under the surface.

However, “Underwater” doesn’t exactly use the seafloor setting to its full potential. The pitch-black darkness and flashlight luminescence works to an extent, but not when the editing is so jarring and the tumbling shaky cam footage is so disorienting to the point where a majority of the film’s action sequences are impossible to follow.

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Kristen Stewart as Norah Price in “Underwater.” (Photo courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox)

Another major issue “Underwater” fails to overcome is any sense of character development. As a result, the film never feels compelling in the slightest. As talented as Kristen Stewart may be, audiences are never given any sort of backstory about her, or any other character, other than a few jumbled lines here and there. Stewart’s most tender moment comes in the film’s final 15 minutes, and by then, it’s too late to build any sort of connection.

The lack of empathy towards characters makes it impossible to care whether any of them survive the adventure, which in turn makes it difficult to feel invested in the movie at all.

It’s hard to feel surprised by how abysmal “Underwater” is after a three-year delay and a January release date, but if there’s any silver lining, it’s the quick 95-minute run time. If you’re in desperate need of a mindless afternoon with a few cheap thrills, then dive on in, otherwise, steer clear.

Star Rating1.5 out of 5

Zach Goins View All

Zach Goins is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association based in Charlotte, N.C. Zach co-founded Inside The Film Room in 2018 and serves as Editor-in-Chief of the website and co-host of the podcast. Zach also serves as a film critic for CLTure.org.

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