Movies anchored underwater share a lot with movies set in space. Both locations provide ample opportunities to explore the mysterious and unknown. Both tend to focus on a small group of explorers being picked off – falling victim to the hazards of their environment or their own ranks.
I love it. But if I had to pick a favorite, underwater movies have the edge. Because, unlike space, being underwater is a feeling I know. I’ve touched it in baths, oceans, beverages, etc.. It composes most of my being, and I respect that it saves and ends lives. But you could not pay me to board a submarine.
Try. You’ll barely get me in a paddleboat.
Some classics of the wet-n-spooky genre are The Abyss (1989) Deep Star Six (1989), Leviathan (1989), Sphere (1998), Deep Blue Sea (1999), and Below (2002). A newer release that I enjoyed is Underwater (2020).
I admit the title is – not great – and the movie was shelved for three years before being released direct to video in January. But the high points of Underwater readily outmatch the flaws.
My favorite element is how quickly the film conjures its atmospheric quality of actually feeling underwater. It maintains that tone the entire time, and it is this elusive quality so many movies with bigger budgets and better acclaim have failed to achieve.
Start with the beginning. The introductory credits are dark and moody in just the right way to make you feel submerged. They set the palette of the film, a reminder to turn off your lights and prepare for action. If I could compare it to anything, I’d say this intro feels like strapping into a carnival ride as metal tracks steer towards a tunnel. The soundtrack is excellent as well, thudding like the approaching footsteps of someone dangerous.
Heroine Kristen Stewart and her opening monologue provide the context needed for all that comes next. I love her portrayal and ability to be stoic in one scene, trembling in another, but always consistent to character. Her vulnerability and resolve are relatable, especially during interior shots in her dive helmet as she tries to recalculate options of survival. Interactions between her and the captain are particularly strong.
As a Lovecraftian creature feature, Underwater has predictable oodles of CGI. However, this was well balanced with practical effects – particularly via the dive suits. They look functional, industrial, and just plain heavy. I enjoyed how often they meshed with the plot, enough to feel like characters themselves.
Almost obligatory for the genre, Underwater is yet another monster movie featuring an autopsy scene of what the human characters are up against. That these characters were able to inspect a practical-effects creature model inside their rig helped provide weight to the CGI masses.
CGI, as much as it can make movies feel like a video game, really aided in providing consistent tension and maintaining that “under the depths” feeling. Paths of bubbles showcase the dangers of ascension as well as debris. The pluming of sediment and diffusion of light is phenomenal. Not being able to see quite as much as you want can be frustrating, but isn’t that true to life? Since when does shining a flashlight guarantee your shin from smacking that coffee table?
This movie is super worth the watch. TJ Miller is a low point, and you’ll crave a mini-map, but Underwater is solid action with some standout moments of aquatic perfection.