“This better not be some 10,000 Leagues Under the Sea s—, man,” a character mutters early on in Underwater. He might not live to find out that he’s right, or that director William Eubank’s taut, nightmarish, and occasionally very silly deep-sea thriller is some serious Alien s— too — and many, many other movies you’ve seen before.
The fact that Kristen Stewart is essentially playing a water-logged Xerox of Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley (or tribute, if you will) couldn’t be made much more clear by the story’s claustrophobic setup on a damaged drilling submarine, or by the fact that it consistently finds a reason to keep her stripped down to her underwear.
Stewart, her hair buzzed to a bright blond fuzz, is Norah, a mechanical engineer who has only a few peaceful moments to brush her teeth before the reckoning comes: Her ship disintegrates spectacularly in a matter of seconds, blown apart by some unseen force. Only five improbably sexy survivors remain, including Game of Thrones’ Jessica Henwick, Sorry for Your Loss‘ Mamoudou Athie, Silicon Valley star T.J. Miller, and veteran French actor Vincent Cassell, as the beleaguered captain of a vessel that suddenly no longer exists.
Even as their ranks steadily thin, the surviving five pursue their best hope: that the only way out is further down. Their descent to the sea floor, unsurprisingly, is fraught with obstacles — including but not limited to faulty suits, changing air pressure, and possible supernatural hellmonsters. Miller, in full sardonic-clown mode, provides some needed comic relief, though the movie’s meta nods and modern dialogue are oddly undermined by its choice to revert to (small spoiler) one of the hoariest clichés in the horror playbook.
Eubank (The Signal) measures out his slow dread and jump scares smartly enough, even if it’s all tied to a template as old as time, or at least Ridley Scott. And Stewart, who pivoted from the franchise superstardom of her teen years to a gratifyingly eccentric career in indie gems like Personal Shopper and Clouds of Sils Maria, seems to have swung that pendulum back toward the mainstream with this and the recent Charlie’s Angels reboot.
She’s too vivid a presence not to make more of the part than there is, though even she can’t rescue the anvil dialogue that weighs down the film’s final moments (even at a brisk 95 minutes, the last 20 tend to drag). Or quite manage to sell its well-meant message of environmental responsibility (if you drill it, you deserve what comes).
Instead, she’s just another action hero — albeit a smart, flinty one with exceptionally good hair — learning the hard way that under the sea, as in space, no one can hear you scream. B-