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“Underwater” Wastes Kristen Stewart In An Only Sometimes Effective Survival Tale

There’s a really strong film to be made with the exact same subject matter as Underwater. In fact, it’s hard to argue that they could have cast it any better, either, as Kristen Stewart is a rock solid central force. However, in a rush to get to the monster movie aspect of the tale, the flick forgets to really invest you in the characters. So, when the terror begins, there’s no real sense of worry for the humans. When it’s focusing on surviving a disaster and the issues with being that deep under the sea, there’s something interesting here. When things begin going bump in the dark, however, it begins to sink. Opening this week, Underwater is a missed opportunity.

The movie is a combination of action and horror, filtered through the lens of a survival tale. Taking place deep down by the ocean’s floor, we follow a small crew of aquatic researchers who have to fight for their life when an underground earthquake destroys their subterranean drilling station. Unable to stay in the lab she’s working at as an engineer, Norah (Stewart) is able to escape that part of the compound with one co-worker (Mamoudou Athie). Soon, they pick up another, wisecracking, companion (T.J. Miller), before eventually finding other survivors in Emily (Jessica Henwick), Smith (John Gallagher Jr.), and their Captain (Vincent Cassel). They develop a plan to escape and survive the explosions that are rocking the station, but once they get on to the ocean’s bed, the dangers expected are amplified by the existence of…something. Soon, a much more visceral fight for survival ensues. William Eubank directs a screenplay by Adam Cozad and Brian Duffield, based on Duffield’s screen story. Gunner Wright rounds out the cast, while Bojan Bazelli handles the cinematography. Marco Beltrami and Brandon Roberts compose the score.

Kristen Stewart does her best to ground things. She’s easily the highlight of the cast, though the small group is nicely put together. Now, they don’t have much more than a singular personality trait, but T.J .Miller’s smart ass remarks are believably awkward in a terrible situation. Vincent Cassel and John Gallagher Jr. are effective straight men, though under served. Mamoudou Athie and Jessica Henwick get the least to do, but they never detract from things. Still, it’s Stewart’s film, and when she’s allowed to go for dramatic beats, there’s success here. It’s just when the monster aspect takes center stage, she’s figuratively swallowed up.

Underwater has aims of being deeper (no pun intended) than just a creature feature, but the disaster/survival elements are given short shrift. Even the always reliable Stewart isn’t enough to overcome that. The deck is just stacked against her, making for an unfair fight. She does her best though, so kudos for that. William Eubank obfuscates a lot of the visuals, but the director likely was working with a limited budget. The script by Adam Cozad and Brian Duffield never gets below the surface (last pun, I promise), but they at least aim to try and make it more than straight horror. They don’t particularly succeed, but the effort is worth taking note of.

This weekend, audiences have an early January option that doesn’t suck in Underwater, which is not nothing. However, it’s only decent when it had the potential to be really good. Kristen Stewart fans will undoubtedly be intrigued, but it’s not a fully realized use of her talents. If you’re just looking for a few cheap jump scares, this will serve its purpose. If you want anything more, however, you’ll see flashes, but ultimately leave disappointed…

Underwater opens in theaters on Friday.

About Joey Magidson

A graduate of Stony Brook University (where he studied Cinema and Cultural Studies), resides in Brooklyn, New York. He contributes to several other film-related websites and is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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