By: Kevin Jordan
Seven miles shallow.
As I crawl out from underneath a mountain of award-hopeful movies, a look forward at upcoming releases in January reminds me that twenty-five indie/documentary/foreign films in a row isn’t as long as it seems. Bad Boys 3? Gretel & Hansel? Like a Boss? Dolittle? DOLITTLE? Why is Dolittle, a $175 million movie starring Robert Downey and Tom Holland opening in mid-January? What is wrong with it? Then again, after forcing myself to sit through the nearly-unwatchable and completely unbearable Uncut Gems, I needed a good January train wreck to cleanse the palate. Or, an underwater drilling station wreck, in the case of Underwater.
(Side note: Adam Sandler’s performance in Uncut Gems is easily the most overrated performance of 2019. Kevin Garnett gave a better performance in the film than did Sandler. Yes, Kevin Garnett, the recently retired basketball player.)
Underwater is two things. It is wall-to-wall action and suspense. And it is completely devoid of coherence. Come to think of it, those two things might also make it John Wick. The difference is that John Wick at least spent a few minutes introducing and establishing characters. Underwater is not concerned whether you care about the characters or understand them as people. Underwater is relying entirely on the fact that you are a human and its characters are human, so you will not root for fellow humans to die. Clearly, this movie has never met most humans.
(SPOILER ALERT. Happy New Year.)
Norah (Kristen Stewart) is a human person working in a drilling station at the bottom of the Mariana Trench (roughly seven miles deep in the ocean). She may or may not have a soft-spot for daddy-longlegs and may or may not prefer hanging out in the locker room in her underwear. She is also narrating to us that spending months at the bottom of the ocean can make a person go insane, so all of this may or may not be actually happening. The one thing I know for sure is we will never find out because all hell breaks loose ninety seconds into the film.
I am not exaggerating about how quickly the film jumps into putting its characters into mortal danger. The movie begins with opening credits superimposed over a bunch of newspaper articles, ala Godzilla (2014), talking about drilling and the drilling company denying rumors of mysterious creatures of the deep. After the opening credits complete, the camera pans around to show us three hallways, followed by Norah wondering aloud what a daddy-longlegs is doing down there with them. Then, the drilling station suffers a catastrophe. That is ninety-nine percent of the exposition, character development, and world building contained in this film. The remainder of the film is the entire cast of six people trying to survive after deciding they need to walk some distance across the ocean floor to the drilling platform because the station is going to explode in thirty minutes and the only remaining escape pods are at the platform. Got that? Oh, one more thing – there are aliens or something. Exposition is overrated.
It is tempting to compare this movie to The Abyss or Sphere or Aliens. The opening newspaper shots leave the viewer with no doubt that the catastrophe is the fault of aliens or hollow-Earth creatures released by the drilling or Cloverfield, so we know they are going to confront the things at some point, just like those other movies. The problem with Underwater is it takes all of the tense parts from those movies and none of the setup parts. Underwater is just one long clenched hyperventilation, occasionally interrupted by a gruesome death. All of those other movies take the time to establish the characters, the geography, and the threat prior to shit hitting the fan, which is what makes them so engaging. Underwater ain’t got time for that shit.
Like in most bad action/horror movies, the characters in this movie are barely a single attribute. Underwater features the Captain (Vincent Cassel), the mechanical engineer (Stewart), joke guy (TJ Miller), the attractive female intern (Jessica Henwick), the guy with the hots for the intern (John Gallagher Jr.), and the token black guy who bites the dust first (Mamoudou Athie). I guess that racist trope is still being used and, just to add insult to injury, the daddy-longlegs had roughly as much screen time as Athie (both of which, and I am not making this up, had less screen time than a stuffed bunny). To be fair, Athie’s death was on screen and bloody, while the spider’s was offscreen and unremarkable, so take that, arachnids. But, I digress.
The point is that if and when any of the characters die, the audience does not care, instead, only reacting at the shock-value of the method of death. This same indifference can also be seen in the world-building and individual scenes as well. After the initial disaster, I was looking forward to exploring the station with the characters as they made their way through the wreckage. Instead, they leave the station, spending much of the film in near darkness, leaving the viewer with little to see beyond the inside of the characters’ helmets and the occasional glimpse of strewn wreckage. Then, there are the scenes that appear to be missing parts of themselves. The characters will venture into a tunnel or cave or shaft, work their way about halfway through with more obstacles ahead, then suddenly appear on the proverbial other side of the tunnel. While the film does a decent job of building suspense at multiple points throughout, it simply drops many of them right on the floor with those jarring leaps forward. It’s like the film is a kid reading a scary book and just jumping ahead several pages to avoid peeing itself.
And definitely don’t think about the many inconsistencies and open-ended thoughts the film doesn’t bother dealing with. I did. When forming their initial escape plan, one of them suggests going to a nearby station (as opposed to the much further away one that becomes their destination) only to have the captain say it is gone. Yet, later, Norah will stumble upon that very station, which she is able to power up with the flick of a switch. At one point, they manage to capture one of the creatures (a small one), noting that it has no eyes. Later in the film, we literally see the glowing eyes of dozens of the creatures. Speaking of which, what about all those newspaper articles talking about rumored monsters? You would think the six humans would have, at the very least, also heard the rumors (ostensibly which would have come from fellow crew members), yet they are completely taken by surprise upon discovering the monsters. And remember how the film begins with Norah talking to herself about going crazy after being underwater for months? Neither did the writers, director, producers, or actors.
While Underwater is a shoddily put-together film, it at least delivers a bunch of suspense and some solid jump scares. If that is all you are looking for in a movie, especially one in January, Underwater has you covered. If not, you will notice that you do not care about the romance between intern girl and that one guy, that Miller’s jokes would land much better if this movie hadn’t ratcheted up the tension to one thousand right out of the gates, or that the director thought he could convince the audience Norah was a Ripley analog by having Stewart running around in her panties for half the film. Still, given the choice between rewatching Underwater or rewatching Uncut Gems, I would take Underwater. But, there are still unwatched movies in that mountain.
Rating: Ask for all but a dollar back, better known as the you-know-it-is-January tax.