Like action vanguard Die Hard, Ridley Scott’s Alien was such a landmark paradigm shift in the science fiction-horror genre—and copied so many times after over 40 years—that it’s a wonder it hasn’t been xeroxed into oblivion. “Alien, but [insert scenario]” has been an enduring logline since 1979 to the point where one such take has improbably spawned its own hardy sub-genre: “Alien, but set underwater.”
In particular, 1989 notoriously saw a glut of these water-slogged knockoffs hit the screen, from The Evil Below, Lords of the Deep and, sure, even The Abyss, to gold standards Leviathan and DeepStar Six. The last in that list, enjoying the same fate as many a woebegone, genre-adjacent feature (Xtro, The Relic, Deep Rising) was unceremoniously buried in the January graveyard. Which is to say, a sub-aquatic Alien ripoff releasing on January 10 and ingeniously titled Underwater is not without precedent.
Minutes into Underwater, the Weyland-Utani—err, Tian Corporation’s laboratory and drilling platform, stationed 7 miles below the surface of the ocean (at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, naturally), is rocked by a massive earthquake. Mechanical engineer Norah’s (Kristen Stewart, kempt and bespectacled for only those preceding moments) cornball narration now interrupted, she rushes around the crumbling structure, variously helping bloodied crew members or dooming them when she must lock off a collapsing wing of the station. Thusly, the Stoic and Brave—but Haunted!—Lead collects fellow archetypes: Red Shirt (Mamoudou Athie), Panicked Scientist (Jessica Henwick), Noble Captain (Vincent Cassell), T.J. Miller (T.J. Miller), and, in the grand tradition of Mr. Harry Dean Stanton, Wry Hawaiian Shirt-Wearer (John Gallagher Jr.) to join her party.
With the undersea station critically damaged and its reactor core threatening to explode, the survivors hatch a do-or-die plan to travel through the remaining structures and—using some admittedly pretty nifty-looking pressurized suits—walk across the ocean floor to the escape pods attached to the massive, several-ton drill. But Underwater is more, say, Sphere pastiche than Poseidon Adventure, so of course these glass-domed placeholders start hearing strange noises—and clocking, to paraphrase Miller, some “real Slender Man shit” in the periphery of their trek. There’s something pissed off, hungry, and derivative out there, threatening their lives about a fraction as much as the requisite limited oxygen supply, sub-freezing temperatures, suit integrity, and of course, space—sorry, water—madness (as ever, guessing which of these will prove fatal is part of the fun). Because Underwater is nothing if not an efficient perpetual trope machine.
At a lean 95 minutes, Underwater wastes no time—relying so earnestly on tried-and-true genre conventions makes the film almost admirably straightforward throughout. The plot is flimsy and beyond rote—in order to survive, people trapped underwater have to get from A to B but, yikes, monsters!—and the characters are barely there, mere vehicles or fodder for the occasional harrowing thrill or PG-13-pushing gnarly death scene (along with a few “fuck”s!). Miller is doing his incessant quippy shit, Henwick and Gallagher Jr. have a perfunctory romance, and Cassell is Haunted just the same as Stewart. Like Keanu Reeves—generously—Stewart’s notoriously wooden acting is well-suited for the lead in this sort of vapid genre material. She’s as perfectly capable as a Big Lots Ellen Ripley action figure, strutting around in her skivvies or one of those bulky space suit, all the while with impossibly waterproof mascara.
Those costumes that the cast spend the bulk of the film entombed in are endemic of a picture that looks and operates more convincingly than it needs to, with a linear narrative as no-flab as its lead, complemented by a production equally as handsome. The inside of the station has that analog, lived-in aesthetic approaching a low-rent version of Ridley Scott’s early science fiction efforts, with exposed wires and ducts, shit taped to walls everywhere, and the gross yellow-and-orange-striped brown walls of an old Winnebago. The whole thing is bathed in the appropriate yellows, blues, and greens, but against inky blacks that simultaneously obfuscate the beastly terrors and conceal any potentially dumdum CGI. Even Brandon Roberts and Marco Beltrami’s anxious, synthy score is just effective enough to contribute to making Underwater one of the more competent examples of this particular brand of soggy Alien pretender.
Underwater doesn’t have a single original strand in its DNA, culling from predecessors that have aped Alien (One scene basically reenacts the Leviathan poster! Minus the bikini babe…), Alien itself, and even a touch of H.P. Lovecraft. But anyone who saw 2019’s fascinating documentary Memory: The Origins of Alien knows full well how unabashedly derivative Dan O’Bannon’s script for that monster movie was in the first place—it took a committed filmmaking team led by Scott to transcend it and realize that milestone motion picture. Underwater director William Eubank is no Ridley Scott, but his sturdy, coherent monster movie works, and with these kinds of genre exercises, sometimes just working is success enough. Especially when you get to work after the last Charlie’s Angels.
Director: William Eubank
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Runtime: 95 minutes
Cast: Kristen Stewart, Vincent Cassel, Jessica Henwick, John Gallagher Jr., Mamoudou Athie, T.J. Miller