Underwater is an odd beast–a studio-polished and special effects-heavy movie that nevertheless feels like a passion project. It didn’t do well at the box office and it didn’t do well with critics, but I imagine it will slowly and deservedly become a minor classic in horror circles.
Kristen Stewart plays Norah, a mechanical engineer working at an underwater drill control station at the bottom of the Mariana Trench. The movie has barely introduced her by the time it hits the ground running: she’s brushing her teeth, an earthquake hits, and the whole station starts hemorrhaging around her, forcing her to try to survive in a crumbling infrastructure in one of the most inhospitable environments possible. She eventually meets up with a few other survivors–including the station’s captain, played by Vincent Cassel–and, with the escape pods already gone, the group has to gamble their survival on the slim chance that they can suit up and walk a mile across the ocean floor to reach another station. Their situation is complicated by the slow realization that they’re in a Lovecraftian universe, surrounded by the Deep Old Ones and Cthulu-like creatures. Think of it as The Poseidon Adventure meets The Descent meets Alien.
And in fact, with those influences in mind, it’s probably not too hard to figure out where the film will go. This is a movie that honors rather than innovates, which admittedly keeps it out of the first-class of horror. But it uses its influences well, crafting a visually entrancing film with a sense of place, real dread, strong creature effects, and good low-key performances, especially from Stewart and Cassel. It does especially well with the moments where it transitions between influences, with the stakes intensifying as the characters have to confront the fact that the story is bigger, stranger, and more dangerous than they’d thought. If you like it, as I do, you’d say it’s a good contemporary Lovecraft homage with a cool “unreliable narrator” sense of us not having the full story. If you don’t like it, I imagine it feels like it was written just so horror geeks could gleefully announce that, hey, it’s Cthulu! And also Kristen Stewart (with a hot haircut) having to strip down to her underwear, just like Ripley!
But I for one welcome our new–well, maybe not our new Lovecraftian overlords. But certainly Kristen Stewart: Stewart, like Weaver, has exactly the right kind of self-possession for this, with her sex appeal innate rather than circumstantial, and not really about how much skin she’s showing at any given time. This is a variety of nudity the film can handle without leering or sleaziness, which wouldn’t fit it tonally.
How the film handles nudity is, in fact, how it handles pretty much everything: straightforwardly and almost without comment. It’s interested in solvable problems and physical realities, the hard details of the characters lives in contrast with the off-human-scale monsters around them. It’s like characters from an Analog story wandered into “The Call of Cthulu”–and while it likes the idea that you recognize both of those references, it’s happy to work with a blank slate, too, which saves it from feeling like it can only be a fan film. This is one that will find its audience over time.