FILM REVIEW – UNDERWATER. With Kristen Stewart, Vincent Cassel, John Gallagher Jr., Jessica Henwick, T.J. Miller. Written by Brian Duffield and Adam Cozad. Directed by William Eubank. Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action and terror, brief strong language. 95 minutes.
The uninspiringly titled, wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am aquatic misadventure UNDERWATER gets right down to business in its opening scene. No sooner have we watched Kristen Stewart’s Sigourney 2.0 rescue a stray spider from a sink drain while brushing her teeth (see folks, she’s kind) than the entire undersea oil rig she’s been working on for months begins collapsing upon itself in a watery cacophony of twisted metal. Stewart and the crew have been drilling seven miles down, at the bottom of the Mariana Trench. What could have caused this catastrophe? An earthquake, or something worse? (Spoiler: It’s something worse.)
An ideal January junk-food quickie like this knows we’ve already seen “Alien,” “The Abyss,” “Gravity” and all the other films from which it’s shamelessly stealing, so there’s no reason to fart around wasting everybody’s time with exposition or character development. Shot in 2017, “Underwater” has been kicking around the Fox/Disney release slate for some time and the final product feels edited down from a longer, more ambitious and presumably less propulsive picture. I think I like it better this way. Introductions are made on the fly while crucial information is often ADR-ed as the movie hustles along the ocean floor from one derivative but no less spine-tingling set-piece to another.
The secret weapon here of course is Stewart, and the chance to see the “Twilight” teen turned international art cinema icon battling nasty sea monsters in some slick schlock. Wearing a bleach-blonde buzz-cut and a bomber jacket over a sports bra, Stewart goes all in on the androgyny chic, showing no signs of slumming as she applies her trademark, inverted-Brando millennial murmurings to the screenplay’s stock scenarios. (I loved watching her in this.) Gallic maniac Vincent Cassel delivers a surprisingly tender turn as the doomed craft’s avuncular captain, and as they strap into their pressurized mech suits its easy to imagine these two sharing a downtime chuckle about how far they’ve strayed from the Cannes Croisette.
“Underwater” was shot so long ago that disgraced comedian T.J. Miller plays the Bill Paxton comic relief role. A naturally unwelcome presence, during his introduction Miller calls Stewart “a flat-chested elfin creature” as if that were some sort of bad thing. (Then again, the whole trick with obnoxious characters like this is waiting to see what kind of grisly demise the filmmakers have cooked up for them. He gets a doozy.) Likewise stranded on the rig are a pair of moony-eyed lovers played by Jessica Henwick and John Gallagher Jr., along with Mamoudou Athie, who is the only black guy on the crew, so don’t get too attached.
The great cinematographer Bojan Bazelli (who’s worked with everybody from Abel Ferrara to Michael Bay) pushes the limitations of low-light digital, making striking use of luminescent beams swallowed up by the sickly green, underwater murk. I adored how the dive suits have small crescents of LED lights near their necks that frame the actors’ faces with the most lovely little shadings and patterns. But it’s exactly this kind of exacting detail work I worry will be massacred by the botched projection of modern multiplex screens. Not since Bradford Young’s boundary-pushing work on “Solo: A Star Wars Story” has a movie’s aesthetic been so prone to highlighting the weaknesses of current presentation standards.
(I had the pleasure of seeing “Underwater” via the pristine projection at Boston’s brand new, state-of-the-art ArcLight complex, but I can’t imagine how impossible it would be to try and follow the action with one of those cheapo AMC bulbs flickering and a 3D cap on the lens. Indeed, I’ve read quite a few reviews from other markets in which critics complained they could barely see what was going on. This reminded me of something I once heard about how The Rolling Stones used to test their final album mixes by playing them through the crappiest car radios they could find. Maybe cinematographers should do the same, holding test screenings at janky suburban mall theaters to see how their hard work is actually being viewed by the masses.)
“You have to take your pants off or the suit won’t fit,” Stewart advises the comely young Henwick while they’re putting on their dive gear. It’s one of those lines that lets you know these filmmakers and actors all knew exactly what they were doing here, providing the most hilariously transparent of excuses to get Stewart running around in her sports bra and Ripley-skivvies for the big finale. That’s the kind of movie “Underwater” is, and exactly what I wanted it to be.•••
Over the past twenty years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in WBUR’s The ARTery, Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.