Sci-fi flick ‘Underwater’ is only shallow

Kristen Stewart in Underwater.
Kristen Stewart in Underwater. Alan Markfield/Twentieth Century Fox

Often, during what's meant to be some film's key dramatic scene, my brain turns off — though this shutdown sequence requires specific cues. When speed-ramping starts up, the score rises to a holler, and editing refracts what's on screen into a series of hectic, darting glimpses shot in close-up, I typically become lost. If other viewers are at all like me, they may know the feeling. A series of received gestures (their wisdom often questionable) instead plays as rigmarole — any effort to stir a feeling is dulled by oppressive familiarity.

Much of Underwater plays like this. A rare B-movie with a fine setup that works when undertaken its own way, it stumbles when it hews too close to its predecessors (Alien above all, Gravity among others), often re-enacting scenes point-by-point and robbing even casual filmgoers of any sense of surprise. Set deep in the Mariana Trench at a drilling base run by Tian Industries, a plainly corrupt oil corporation, the film opens on Norah Price (Kristen Stewart), an engineer at the company's Kepler Base, brushing her teeth just before it collapses — forcing her to crawl through the leaking wreckage to gather her captain and a small party of survivors. After conferring on strategy, they agree to gamble on a dangerous trek to the hoped-for safety of a neighboring base. But the workers might as well be out in space; the water pressure that surrounds the lead actors' deep-sea encampment is so great that any crack in their cosmonaut-like pressure suits will make their bodies literally implode: a gory red mess each time it happens. With these cloud-bursts of viscera exemplifying the movie's loosely contained penchant for violence (the film's rated PG-13), Underwater operates as a sci-fi slasher whose inventions and relative intimacy (its cast numbers fewer than 10 speaking roles) deliver just enough to make you want more of both.

Underwater's conceptual appeal lies mostly in its basic setting; it proves unexpectedly refreshing to find the cliches and variables we're used to seeing in space twisted by their enactment in a new environment. Grasping navigations of darkened landscapes, struggles for air, and eerily Freudian umbilical tethers all feature, literally grounded and made novel by the creative team's choice of setting. The film's interior scenes — all in dated (yet drably futuristic) industrial hallways — make much of fluorescent lights and filters, the atmosphere of the surrounding depths seeming to leak into the workers' refuge even while their base remains intact. Likewise, the point-of-view sequences in the exterior scenes — in which the crew trudges through undersea dunes, fumbling for a visible path — evoke video games like BioShock as strongly as they echo Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity, even as they court monotony at times with their limited palette of aggressively murky textures. A better version of Underwater might have kept a bold focus on the rhythm of bodies moving at phenomenal depths through an alien environment, evoking the disembodied, even cosmic quality we so often seek in space films — or that we find in Gus Van Sant's under-appreciated Gerry. Instead, Underwater delivers an atmosphere of oppressive, constant, and insinuating pressure — a tone that gets old the harder it's driven in, even as it works at times.

Though there's much to like or simply appreciate in terms of the film's fleeting smoothness and fits of invention, Underwater's overshadowed by its own pervasive shallowness. The only questions it plumbs are formal and experiential, and it fails to interrogate either realm with the depth or consistency they deserve. Epitomized by Stewart's baffling, philosophic voiceover at the beginning and end of the film (almost certainly conceived in the editing room), director William Eubank fails to grant his expedition a clear reason for being, instead defaulting too often to genre mashups, dialogic cliches, and painstaking homage. The effect rocks the film, which remains not without its pleasures. Still, a sense prevails of a director a bit outside his depth, whose aspirations mirror his characters in their sour limitations. Like those of his trudging, beleaguered cast and too many of the rest of us, his dreams appear limited, and twofold: to work, and to survive.

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