There isn’t much about Underwater that can’t be guessed by looking at the name. It’s a horror movie and it’s set–you guessed it–underwater. Extremely underwater, in fact–near the Marianas Trench, to be specific, on a drilling rig that is boring deep into the Earth. What exactly is being mined is never made explicitly clear, but from context clues, it seems like some sort of fuel. Luckily, the simplicity of the concept isn’t necessarily a bad thing in this case. Chances are if you saw the trailer for this one and were excited about it, you’re going to leave the theater a satisfied customer. Underwater isn’t attempting to revolutionize horror movies–arguably it’s not even really attempting to tell a fully fleshed out story–but it will absolutely make you jump and want to cover your eyes.
Underwater opens with a montage of ominous news clippings touting all kinds of dangerous, vague threats about the risks of underwater drilling, from unexplained phenomena plaguing rigs to the potential psychological toll of living underwater. That’s about all the movie deigns to give as far as exposition is concerned, because the second the credits wrap up, we’re immediately off to the races. Kirsten Stewart’s character, Norah, gives a short monologue (again about the psychological effects of living underwater) before things instantly and immediately begin going south. It all feels like being thrown into the deep end of a story already in progress–characters don’t even get names before they’re immediately catapulted into struggling for their lives.
Norah eventually teams up with a crew of survivors, including the rig’s proud captain (Vincent Cassel), obnoxious engineer (TJ Miller), meek research assistant (Jessica Haversham), panicky tech (Mamoudou Athie), and cool-headed mechanic (John Gallagher Jr.) But once they’ve banded together, they quickly realize that the “earthquake” that began tearing their ocean floor home apart was actually anything but a natural disaster, making the fight for their lives–and any means back to the surface–a high-stakes game of cat and mouse against deadly aquatic monsters.
There really isn’t much more to it–and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. What Underwater lacks in world-building and lore, it makes up for in a very effective, cold-sweat inducing sense of claustrophobia and anxiety. The monsters, the looming threat of drowning or imploding thanks to the pressure of the water or being crushed by falling rig debris, the helplessness of being stuck on the seafloor with no way to make it to the surface–it’s all very scary.
What’s more, Underwater wears its blue-collar sci-fi inspiration on its sleeve. Even if you’re not a huge fan of Alien and Aliens, the aesthetic nods will be impossible to miss, from Norah’s “suiting up” montage that plays as a nod to Ellen Ripley to the rig’s Nostromo-style interiors. Even the monsters themselves seem to borrow both from H.R. Gieger and H.P. Lovecraft. Sure, the movie may not do much in the way of building a new world or new story, but it does do a great job of reminding you that these genre conventions have stood the test of time. It still works, even stripped down to its barest essentials.
Strangely, there are threads here and there that give the impression that once upon a time, Underwater was probably a much more fleshed-out narrative. Characters will occasionally bring up their surface-dwelling families only to inevitably reveal that the loved one they’ve been talking about in the present tense is actually long dead. Another character carries around a stuffed rabbit like a toddler carries a security blanket. These revelations never amount to anything, but feel like they could have in some other version of the script.
At one point, the existence of a second seafloor rig is brought up, only to be shot down with an ominous “that place no longer exists” one-liner from the captain. Was there another monster incident that was covered up? Experimentation? Some sort of dark secret? Who knows? Realistically, you’ll be hard-pressed to even remember to ask these questions upon leaving the theater, once your teeth have unclenched and your heart rate has slowed. It’s just not the sort of movie that asks you to spend much time or energy thinking too hard about any part of it.
All told, Underwater isn’t a bad horror movie. It’s a 90-minute monster-slash-disaster movie contained to the bottom of the ocean, it’s packed with enough jump-scares and dread to keep your teeth clenched for the duration, and the creatures are appropriately menacing, if wildly undeveloped. It certainly won’t be achieving classic status like the Alien franchise it owes so much to, but it’ll be a fun late-night watch for horror fans looking for a quick, one-and-done scare.