Director: William Eubank
Writers: Brian Duffield and Adam Cozad
Cast: Kristen Stewart, Mamoudou Athie, Vincent Cassel, TJ Miller
Cinematographer: Bojan Bazelli
Editors: Brian Berdan, William Hoy, Todd E. Miller
Streaming on: Disney+ Hotstar
Right off the bat, Underwater wants you to know it isn’t going to waste any time on exposition. The rapidfire opening credits lay out the premise via newspaper headlines — unexplored drilling zone…Mariana Trench…industry to drill at record depth…high risk. It’s enough to get the picture.
Under the sea, the pressures are psychological (loneliness, isolation) as well as literal. The film begins with a voiceover pondering the former — “When you’re underwater, you lose all sense of day and night,” mechanical engineer Norah (Kristen Stewart) intones — but quickly plunges into the latter as the rig she’s stationed at begins to collapse. The setup unfolds at breakneck speed. Within seconds, she’s forced to consider sealing off an area, a choice that would save her from drowning, but kill those trapped on the other side.
Surrounded by debris, Norah and drill worker Rodrigo (Mamoudou Athie) find other surviving crew members and decide their best course of action is to get to a nearby station before their facility explodes completely. The film expertly engineers situations around the disintegrated rig to trigger a host of specific fears. Germaphobes might want to look away while the camera tracks Norah’s bare feet as she wades through water that Rodrigo helpfully informs her is sewage. Those who are claustrophobic might want to avoid a scene in which the crew crawls through partially collapsed shafts agonisingly squeezing forward, inch by inch. Stewart channels her naturally brittle edginess into her character, framed in tight close-ups as her increasing unease manifests through shaky breaths and a clenched jaw.
Director William Eubank crafts an immersive atmosphere, with dim lighting, tight corridors and minimal sound. The film’s plot remains brisk and straightforward, even as the crew’s path is anything but, and pushes on without any meandering subplots. Brief flashes of humour punctuate the life-or-death stakes. We want you to know you’re not just part of a team, you’re part of our family is the automated faux cheery message that plays on loop moments after Norah and Rodrigo emerge from the wreckage, effectively isolated from the world, and seconds before they find out that the crew members took off with all the escape pods. So much for family.
There’s even an anti-suit up scene. While another film might’ve had a montage of its grimly determined characters putting on their pressurized suits to a metal soundtrack, here, the frightened, agitated crew stare stonily until one of them turns the music off.
The film’s weakest moments are when it pauses the characters’ journey to let them regroup and reassess their situation. The thrill and urgency of the perilous underwater trek instantly deflates and the atmosphere becomes listless. Out of things to discuss, the crew begins talking in heavy-handed metaphors. “We drilled to the bottom of the ocean. We took too much, now she’s taking back,” says one member. For the most part, however, they’re an affable bunch that you root for.
Underwater fully mines the terrors of the deep, switching from survival drama to creature feature midway, a move that feels completely plausible. What’s one more terrifying thing in a long list of them? The film remains compelling for the rest of its runtime as the characters find themselves being hunted and picked off, one by one, across the desolate vastness of the ocean floor. While parts might bring to mind Alien (1979), with Kristen Stewart as Ripley, there’s enough here that’s fresh. The film leans into its eco-thriller nature, with a climax that suggests maybe capitalism was the real monster all along.