(Welcome to The Quarantine Stream, a series where the /Film team shares what they’ve been watching while social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.)
The Movie: Underwater
Where You Can Stream It: HBO Max
The Pitch: Remember Alien? Remember The Abyss? Remember reading a vague synopsis of an H.P. Lovecraft story? Well, put all those things in a blender, throw in Kristen Stewart with a really cool haircut, and you’ve got Underwater.
Why It’s Essential Quarantine Viewing: Underwater was released last January, and like many January movies, it was a box office disappointment. But a year later, this nifty little monster movie deserves to find an audience. Does it break the mold? Oh, hell no – it rips off many other films. But it’s also a swift, well-made fright flick that does exactly what it sets out to do, and sometimes that’s enough.
The movie release landscape is a bit of a mess right now, but back in the old days, whenever a studio lacked faith in a film, they would dump it into theaters in January. As a result, multiplexes became wastelands at the start of the year, with studios pushing out their leftover titles – the type of titles doomed to fail, financially. But that doesn’t mean the movies that arrive in January are bad. It just means they’re not for everyone.
And that brings us to Underwater, a nifty, well-made monster movie that delivers what you’re looking for, provided you’re looking for a deep-sea riff on Alien. No, Underwater isn’t what you’d call “original” – but it deserves some credit for being something rare: a studio movie not based on an IP. These days, studios are afraid to shell out significant money for anything that doesn’t involve superheroes or a recognizable brand – and yet, inexplicably, 20th Century Fox (before they merged with Disney) did just that, throwing somewhere between $50–80 million at Underwater.
The film was shot and completed in 2017. And then…it just sat around. Until it finally arrived in January 2020, where it received mixed reviews and poor box office numbers ($40.9 million worldwide). But gosh darn it, Underwater deserves better! It’s gorgeous to look at; the scares are effective; and it moves, baby! There’s no wasted time on bullshit here – after a super quick set-up that establishes main character Norah Price (Kristen Stewart) as a bit of a melancholy loner, Underwater gets right to the point and starts blowing shit up.
Norah works on a research and drilling facility at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, and as the film begins, some sort of event – an earthquake, perhaps – calls the facility to start collapsing. In the first few minutes, we have to watch Norah scramble to get to safety while also having to make the difficult decision to close some airlock doors – a move that dooms some of her coworkers to death. It’s not Norah’s fault – she had no choice; either she shut the doors or the entire structure would implode. But it doesn’t make it any easier.
Soon Norah hooks up with some other survivors, and they hatch a plan to get to safety. That plan involves taking an underwater elevator down even further and then walking across the ocean floor. But the destruction of the facility is the least of their problems because it seems all the deep-sea drilling has unleashed a swarm of slimy Lovecraftian monsters.
Despite its brisk pace, Underwater actually does a great job establishing its characters quickly: there’s the rookie, the funny guy, the stoic captain, and so on. These aren’t exactly well-developed characters; in fact, they’re mostly a collection of tropes. But we don’t really need nuance in a movie like this; we just need to learn who these people are and then use that to care about them. And it works! We actually want (most) of these folks to survive, so when the monsters come calling, it’s extra unnerving. There are better – and smarter – monster movies than Underwater. But that doesn’t make Underwater any less fun. By the time the film unleashes a Cthulhu-like beastie, you’re in hook, line, and sinker.
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