I’ll be honest, I was predisposed to enjoy this film just because of the setting, and the surprising nods to Lovecraft only sealed the deal, so this possibly isn’t the most even-minded, judgemental of reviews. We’re just predisposed to like certain films, I guess. James Cameron’s The Abyss, for all its faults, is one of my favourite films, and William Eubank’s somewhat ill-fated Underwater (what, not even a DVD release over here?) is like some kind of sequel or perhaps more precisely an ‘anti-The Abyss’. In Cameron’s film our bold aquanauts meet Spielbergian good-guy aliens who just want us to play nice on the surface, whereas in Underwater our aquanauts meet up with beasties who want us to frak off and die horribly, but both films share the same blue-collar workers in the depths/gritty hardware/grungy reality tropes which nod back to Ridley Scott’s truckers-in-space Alien. The hardware is great in Underwater, particularly the deep-sea suits that they have to wear in order to survive the pressures of the depths and trek across the desolate ocean floor- they are hugely impressive and convincing.
Underwater initially unfolds like an Irwin Allen disaster movie, with a bunch of survivors trapped in a stricken deep-sea mining platform trying to get back to the surface. The setting is well realised -if vaguely uninspiring/overly familiar, in a Deepcore/Nostromo kind of way- and the characters reasonably defined, our angst-ridden, moody heroine Norah (Kirstin Stewart) surprisingly androgynous as far as traditional heroines go. She manages to find some survivors in the ruins -Rodrigo (Mamoudou Athie), and wise-cracking comic relief Paul (T J Miller) and after a finely directed claustrophobic crawl-through-the -wreckage sequence they hook up with station commander Captain Lucien (Vincent Cassel) who has managed to see off the last of the crew in twenty-two surviving life-pods. Lucien and two other crew -Liam (John Gallagher Jr.) and Emily (Jessica Yu Li Henwick)- having now run out of lifepods are trying to find some other way off the station, and Norah and her bunch join the effort.
My biggest gripe regards the film is that it has clearly been edited down to its bare-bones: it literally starts with a bang, with the drilling station stricken by disaster. It’d be like starting The Abyss with the Deepcore rig being dragged to the edge of the, er, abyss, or Alien starting with the Nostromo landing on the planetoid. We are not given any time as viewers to acclimatise ourselves with the setting or the premise or the characters, we are just thrown into it and the pace never really lets up over its slim 95-minute running time. The only real information about where we are and whats going on is given during the title sequence in the form of text/news cuttings, and that’s it- clearly this is a deliberate info-dump device which is bookended at the end, too.
This obviously betrays the film as a film of its time, as attention-deficit disorder viewers obviously have very valuable time that they don’t want to waste with movies establishing characterisation and drama in the old-fashioned ways, they just want to get to the action and then go out for a drink and pizza. Very often this kind of thing is done in films to disguise plot holes and bad logic- JJ Abrams is a master of this and Rise of Skywalker possibly the most heinous culprit of late- and its a pity, because Underwater doesn’t really have too many plot-holes it needs to hide away and it could have done with more running-time to establish its characters in more, er, depth (sic). Its hard to care for characters if you don’t know them, and while the film does manage to clearly define them as individuals it only does so by making them unfortunately very simplistic and one-dimensional. The brevity also damages the atmosphere of the film, lacking the time to deepen the mood and tension. Like many-if not all- modern films, Underwater lacks a really good score too: its score by genre veteran Marco Beltrami and Brandon Roberts is functional at best, and lacks the cloying, disturbing atmosphere, of say Elliot Goldenthal’s similarly-themed Sphere soundtrack.
So while I thoroughly enjoyed Underwater for what it is, there is always a frustrating sense that it could have been more, and that it betrays itself as a possibly troubled production (it was apparently finished in 2018 but left on the shelf for a few years waiting release). While I suppose I’m fooling myself to think there’s possibly a longer, superior extended Directors Cut out there that we’ll never see, I think I’d be right in thinking that if this film had been made in the 1970s or even 1980s, it would be two hours long and better-paced with proper character beats and an improved sense of tension. Like many modern films, this film in its final guise almost feels like a highlights reel, and its likely inevitable that if a studio starts cutting a two-hour movie to ninety minutes, it’ll keep the expensive effects sequences and cut the character stuff.
As it is, after a very limited cinema release earlier this year, Underwater has been dumped on digital rental services here in the UK, without even a DVD or Blu-ray release (never mind 4K UHD). Hey, its not exactly a genre classic but it deserves better. A film like Underwater, as dark as it is, can be particularly hurt by compression issues when streaming it, and to be frank it looked pretty horrible in some of the more frantic murky sequences on the Amazon stream I watched it on. Just another reason to bemoan the move away from physical formats- what a brave new world we have to look forward to, film fans.