REVIEW: Underwater (2020)

Seven miles beneath the ocean’s surface, a large-scale mining operation is devastated by an unexpected earthquake. Engineer Norah Price, her captain Lucien (Vincent Cassel), and a small band of survivors desperately work to reach safety before the entire facility collapses. Something has emerged from deep beneath the ocean floor, however, and has started to hunt the survivors.

In 1935 the fledgling Hollywood studios 20th Century Pictures and Fox Studios merged to create 20th Century Fox. Their joint venture commenced with Harry Lachman’s adaptation of Dante’s Inferno. Now, 85 years and 2,095 distributed films later, the 20th Century Fox brand comes to an end with UnderwaterThe Call of the Wild, released to cinemas in a couple of weeks, will be credited to Disney subsidiary 20th Century Studios.

The release of Underwater in January 2020, a full three years since the film was shot, feels very much like Disney clearing the decks before they fully take over their studio purchase. The only remaining Fox production left, X-Men spin-off The New Mutants, has been deemed lucrative enough to receive a proper theatrical release later in 2020. Underwater, on the other hand, is a pulpy monster film with a relatively unknown director (William Eubank) and only Twilight alumnus Kristen Stewart providing any kind of star power. French co-star Vincent Cassel is only really known in Francophile markets, and the only reason T.J. Miller is in the film at all is because it was shot back before he became such a toxic presence on-screen (he has been accused of sexual assault and harassment, arrested for making a false bomb threat to victimise a woman, and condemned by his Silicon Valley co-stars for unprofessional behaviour – all since his work on Underwater was completed). Underwater‘s release at the beginning of this year is a classic example of a film studio ‘dumping the dead wood’ at a time when there is significantly less competition for it to claw back some of its cost.

All of this is rather a shame, since Underwater is actually a pretty enjoyable film. William Eubank has delivered a classic blend of science fiction and horror that, while hardly original, does exactly what it says on the tin and commits fully to its story and concept. Viewers expecting something along the lines of James Cameron’s The Abyss should probably recalibrate their expectations more along the lines of George P. Cosmatos’ 1989 thriller Leviathan. That in mind, it is worth noting that Underwater qualifies amiably for director Howard Hawk’s famous definition of a good film: “three good scenes, no bad ones”. It is, all in all, a straight-forward monster movie. If you enjoy the genre, then you will likely enjoy the film.

Underwater also boasts some outstanding production design. The nature of the threat facing the surviving workers is introduced gradually and the gloom of the deep sea setting obscures the full scale and danger until the film’s climax. Someone – whether director, designer, or both – has certainly taken a Lovecraftian aesthetic to heart. The more you see, the more nightmarish it becomes.

The film travels along at a remarkable clip, running to less than 90 minutes. Other stories of this nature usually take their time in introducing the cast before throwing them into peril. Underwater all but demolishes its setting before we have met more than two characters, and introduces the rest as it goes. This momentum powers the first half along tremendously, and only slows down when it needs to pull towards an ending. You can criticise the thinly-drawn characters, but they are uniformly performed well – even Miller – and never irritate. In all honesty, the likes of Stewart and Cassel are well above and beyond the material, but they commit to and respect the material all the same.

Underwater is a simple and straight-forward monster movie. Whether or not one likes it is entirely down to what one thinks of films of this type: scary science fiction thrillers with a group of people struggling to escape a visual effect. It’s no Alien by any stretch, but it is comparable to a Pitch Black or a Sphere. It knows its audience and it services them well. It is a perfectly appropriate film with which 20th Century Fox can bid the world farewell: to-the-point, well made, and providing a simple slice of popular entertainment.

Underwater opens in Australian cinemas tomorrow, 23 January 2020.

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