Friday, January 10, 2020

'Underwater' Sinks

Note: Not a still from Aliens. Or The Abyss.

It's never a good sign when a film's release is delayed two years, and it's an even worse sign when said film is released in the month of January, the chosen dumping ground for movie garbage. But such is the case for Underwater, the new deep-sea monster movie starring Kristen Stewart.

Kristen Stewart plays Norah, a mechanical engineer on a deep water drilling rig, and she barely has time to finish her inner monologue about pessimism, brush her teeth, and put on a shirt before the rig starts to implode around her. She finds a handful of survivors, including Vincent Cassel as the Captain, and T.J. Miller as an annoying crew member who thinks he's hilarious (aka T..J. Miller). While they suspect an earthquake may be the cause, the weird growls heard on the drilling crew's last transmission give them pause. Nonetheless, Norah and crew must find a way to the surface, even if it means walking a mile across the bottom of the ocean.

I complain a lot about the length of current films, and have a longstanding belief that most could be cut down by 30 minutes and be much improved for it. Underwater is perhaps the rare exception to this rule. Its brisk 95 minute running time leaves no space for character development, establishment of place, or, really, anything other than confusion. Disaster strikes literally minutes into the film, before we've met anyone but Norah, and all we learn about her is she has good oral hygiene, has probably lost a life partner, won't kill spiders, and wears glasses she immediately loses, and never mentions needing again.

There are some tense moments of claustrophobic crawling through crushed hallways, but having no idea what this big underwater station looks like or what its lay-out is, paired with some maddening jump cuts that omit long swaths of time, the crew might as well be trapped in a storage locker. Once they don their diving suits and hit the water, forget it. It's impossible to see what the hell is going on.

My reaction to Underwater probably wasn't helped by the fact that, by mere coincidence, I had re-watched The Abyss two weeks before, and sure that movie has its flaws, but at least you could see what was happening! I'm sure director William Eubank thought Underwater's murky sea was both creepier and more realistic, and there's probably no way the water that deep down is as clear and brightly lit as James Cameron made it look in The Abyss. But you know what? I'll take that clear sea and its technicolor aliens over Underwater's murky depths any day.