Film: Underwater

Chances are pretty good that if you watch Underwater (2020), even if you haven’t seen it before, you’ll feel like you have. If this one has an original bone in its body, that bone is surrounded by lots of other derivative, over-familiar bones, with The Abyss, Aliens, and The Poseidon Adventure being the boniest of them. That said, if you enjoy this kind of experience, Underwater is an decent example of the type, a deep-sea survival tale that skates by—almost entirely—on the charisma of its cast.

In the not-so-distant future, Norah (Kristen Stewart) is a mechanical engineer on an undersea drilling rig in the Mariana Trench. Through a mix of initiative, resourcefulness, and luck, Norah is one of the survivors when a mysterious seismic event wipes out a massive percentage of the station. Regrouping with a small party of fellow survivors, Norah helps execute the risky escape plan enacted by Captain Lucien (Vincent Cassel), and winds up being a crucial asset in the team’s harrowing adventures as they try to make it back to the surface.

Underwater delivers exactly what it promises: an Irwin Allenish creature feature with suspenseful, claustrophobic interiors, flashy CGI effects, and an ensemble cast that nervously banters its way through each new predicament. It’s bookended by clunky headline-montage exposition, but the majority of the middle is engaging enough ensemble action that does a decent job of commanding attention, despite a simplistic plot. Stewart is effective in a Ripleyesque, competence-porn lead, while the rest of the cast—including Cassel, Mamoudou Athie, John Gallagher, Jr., Jessica Henwick, and T.J. Miller—does an admirable job of elevating their thin characters. (Miller, perhaps, stands out a bit more than the others; the film leverages his customary snark for the obligatory comic relief.)

For films like this to work, they have to have characters worth investing in, and while Underwater’s script doesn’t put a hell of a lot of material on the page for them, the actors imbue their roles with enough personality to pull it off. It’s pretty shallow otherwise, with predictable thriller beats, a thin science fictional veneer, and an ineffectual attempt to undergird the affair with environmental allegory. It’s a testament to the performers that I enjoyed it despite myself.

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