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Depth charge - ‘Underwater’

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The ocean can be scary.

Specifically, the deep ocean. We’re talking Mariana Trench deep. Challenger Deep deep. Miles down where the pressure is so intense that only particular brands of strange and strong life can exist. In many ways, the ocean floor is as alien to mankind as the moon. Perhaps more so.

As such, it makes sense that such a place would inspire some sci-fi/horror storytelling. The latest offering in that vein is “Underwater,” directed by William Eubank and starring Kristen Stewart. One might suspect that it’s your usual mid-January fare, but don’t be fooled by the release date – it isn’t a great movie, but there’s enough here to warrant a look from sci-fi fans.

There are shades of other, better films here – classics like “The Abyss” and the very obvious influence of the first two “Alien” movies – and “Underwater” occasionally wanders into the realm of the derivative. Still, the film is stylistically interesting, and Stewart is surprisingly engaging in a role that’s a bit of a departure for her. Again, not great, but not terrible either.

Stewart plays Norah, a mechanical engineer working for a huge corporation that has set up a mining operation on the ocean floor. Despite a history of mysterious accidents (the exposition is handled briskly and effectively via the opening credits), the plan is to keep digging. But an unexplained incident outside the base sets off a domino effect that leads to massive equipment failures across the entire undersea compound.

The resulting damage leads to massive casualties, with only a handful of the crew surviving the initial collapse. Norah is joined by Rodrigo (Mamoudou Athie, TV’s “Cake”) in narrowly escaping the rapidly-disintegrating corridors; in turn, the two of them help pull Paul (T.J. Miller, “Deadpool 2”) from the rubble before making their way to the escape pods … which are all gone. They discover that only Captain Lucien (Vincent Cassel, “The Specials”) has remained with the pods.

They make their way to the control room, where they find Liam Smith (John Gallagher Jr., “American Woman”) and Emily Haversham (Jessica Henwick, TV’s “Iron Fist”). These six are the only ones left in the base; it soon becomes clear that their only chance is to undertake a high-risk plan. In essence, they are going to put on their specialized robotic exoskeleton dive suits and walk across the ocean floor to the main hub where they can find escape pods.

It’s not until they get out into the water that they discover that they are not alone. Mysterious creatures are everywhere, monstrous and strong and vicious, awakened by the unchecked hubris of the mining company’s efforts to drill ever deeper. Making their escape becomes exponentially more dangerous as they lurch and struggle through the murky depths, where the slightest leak means a gruesome death and relentless monsters lurking in every shadow.

At first glance, “Underwater” reads a little bit like an “Alien” clone, with Stewart’s Norah standing in as an analog for Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley. The claustrophobic passageways, the body-horrific monsters, the flight-or-fight dynamic, even the exo-suits … it all rings familiar. That said, this isn’t the total knockoff that it initially appears to be, even as it echoes the major beats. It’s a fine distinction between respectful homage and rip-off; “Underwater” mostly stays on the right side of the line, even as it unapologetically cribs.

“Underwater” never quite achieves stylistic distinction in its own right, unfortunately. While it’s a reasonably well-made film, with a nice grimy aesthetic and a lean narrative, it never shakes that nagging sensation that it isn’t as good a film as the ones whose influences it displays just a little too prominently.

None of this is Stewart’s fault, by the way. She’s really good here. I wouldn’t have pegged her as someone suited to this kind of role, though if asked, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you precisely why. I’m as guilty as anyone of denigrating her abilities thanks to her breakout in “Twilight,” but I’m also self-aware enough to admit when I’m wrong. She’s a real talent and it shows even in a role like this one. She plays it steely and vulnerable simultaneously, equally endowing the moments of resolve and moments of terror. She’s got legitimate action hero potential; I look forward to seeing her tackle this kind of part in a better movie.

The rest of the ensemble is solid. Cassel lends his part the suitable down-with-the-ship gravitas it requires. It’s weird to see the problematic Miller here; this film has been in the can since before the revelations regarding his reprehensible behavior toward women. He’s fine. Gallagher is someone I quite like, though this part continues a long line of lukewarm choices. Athie is good, though he’s not given a ton to do. And maybe the best of the supporting crew is Henwick, who does solid work in conveying the potential realities of such a terrifying situation.

In other circumstances, “Underwater” would have been nothing more than an oceanic “Alien,” a poor replica purchased off a blanket spread out on a sidewalk. But thanks to the presence of Stewart, the proceedings are elevated just enough to move this one from bad to OK. And in January, OK is pretty good. Sci-fi/horror fans can feel free to dive in.

[2.5 out of 5]

Last modified on Wednesday, 15 January 2020 09:11

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