Boasting the visual aesthetic of those automatic car washes with ostentatious multicolored light rigs, Underwater is the latest Weyland-Yutani expansion pack that could be worse and could be better. After all: As long as there are movie theaters and Januaries, filmmakers will ape Alien.
Director William Eubank’s effort reskins Ripley with Kristen Stewart’s Norah, a mechanical engineer on an oil rig battling tentacled and oh-so-hungry eldritch beasts seven miles down. Deep Rising and Deep Blue Sea bring better shock and aw-naw-they-didn’t. Underwater at least has a lead actress trying to do something with the material. These are the tradeoffs.
Shot in 2017 and shelved until just the right early-year scuttle, Underwater takes place in heretofore unexplored oil-drilling zones of the Pacific Ocean’s Mariana Trench circa 2050. That is until Tian Industries steps in with a presumed bajillion-dollar oil rig. (Pay no mind to the corporate names and logos that aren’t Tian adorning every employee’s jumpsuit.)
In an opening-credits montage of newspaper headlines, one tells of strange sightings at the rig. Underwater’s biggest laugh is when the “and T.J. Miller” credit flashes at that same moment. Filmed before bomb threats and harassment got Miller blackballed, Underwater relies on Miller to bring a similarly slack-jawed comic relief as he did to Cloverfield more than a decade ago. It wouldn’t work even without the stink of scumbag behavior wafting off him. Maybe Eubank should’ve just CGI’d him into a full-size version of the Mucinex booger to whom he once gave voice.
Anyway, strange sightings at the rig? Why, who would ever let that get in the way of some good, old-fashioned commerce with expendable employees? The fluorescent scuzz of the oil rig’s workspaces recall a studio-funded High Life (sans Fuckbox, of course), and Eubank generates some gripping tension in the opening sequence as those sightings turn seismic. Only Norah’s fleet-fingered way with circuit boards saves any part of the labyrinthine rig from destruction.
What follows are a surplus of on-screen orientation graphics that really just boil down to these questions: Can Stewart, Miller, Vincent Cassel, Mamoudou Athie, Jessica Henwick and John Gallagher Jr.’s characters make their way along the ocean floor from one collapsing structure to another? Will they find enough working escape pods to get to the surface? Can they avoid becoming meals for the Dementor-meets-Cloverfield monsters they’ve awoken with all their pesky drilling? All that the Alice in Wonderland quote glimpsed on the back of someone’s oxygen pack means is that perhaps one of the screenwriters read a book.
Once the sextet hits the ocean floor, Underwater turns into a constant digital smear of light, shadow and undulating water — occasionally broken up by budget-blurred CGI creatures and dialogue like “We did this! We took too much and now she’s taking back!” or “We’re not supposed to be down here! No one is!” The action sequences are borderline incomprehensible, save moments where bodies are imploded, pulverized or otherwise heroically sacrificed to save everyone else. The most interesting part of Underwater will be the eventual Blu-ray featurette that reveals what actual nature sounds were mashed together to create the slimy critters’ screeches and wails.
Stewart’s Norah boasts a ’90s Lori Petty bleach buzzcut and a waifish body that would make Luc Besson swoon. Even while buried under debris, Miller’s goober refers to Norah as a “sweet, flat-chested elfin creature.” Of course, Stewart is often scantily clad when running around environments in which there is so much rebar to rip her apart. And yet even in such disposable garbage, Stewart has a way of communicating the manner in which Norah has internalized and compartmentalized all of the terrible things that are happening, and have happened, to her.
There’s an attempt to flesh out the specifics of Norah’s tragic past. But the sound design of Underwater is as such that all you can really glean is that she once had a BWOMMMMMMP that went BWIIIIIIING before she WOOOOOOOSHED into this job. Come to think of it, this is kind of how the car wash sounds, too.