Underwater has two major flaws: it reveals the monster too early and T.J. Miller somehow gets top billing, nearly three years years after he was accused of sexual misconduct, physical assault, and violent transphobia. The former can be forgiven, but the latter, not so much. Though Miller’s character is the second to die in this tense thriller that feels like Pacific Rim, Alien, and Andy–Serkis-as-Gollum had a baby, he still occupies a fairly large role, which frankly could have (and should have) been recast, because he undermines the stellar work of everyone else in the film.
Honestly, Fox would have done better to give Jessica Henwick top billing, since her role as Emily is so much bigger and ultimately more important to the story and the theme than Miller’s. Alongside John Gallagher, Jr., Vincent Cassel, and Kristen Stewart, Henwick helps carry what could be a downright terrible film into territory where the stakes feel real and the tension is well-executed.
The basic premise of Underwater is that a government-sanctioned team have created the world’s longest drill to dig to the bottom of the Marianas Trench, which is the deepest location on Earth at nearly 7 miles below the surface. Given our ever-increasing appetite for fossil fuel, it’s not that absurd of a concept, which certainly helps ground the film in reality. When the main research station is decimated by what appears to be a massive earthquake, a handful of survivors don high-pressure diving suits and walk across the bottom of the ocean, in the dark, to get to another research station where they can take evacuation pods to the surface.
If you’ve ever seen an aqua-horror movie, you know that this is where the real problems begin.
In an interview with The Beat, director William Eubank said the creatures in Underwater went through a few stages of development: “We started to get more and more mythological and without giving any spoilers away, I knew at the end of the day, to have something where what if tomorrow, they get some footage and it seems like there’s something living down there? I just thought it was so creepy. What if you see footprints down there tomorrow off of one of the things? That’s going to freak everybody out.”
The final monster product is pretty great, but it’s the performances — especially from Stewart and Henwick, who truly carry the film — that make the monsters seem all the more creepy. As mentioned above, they’re revealed a bit too early; the impact of the finale is somewhat lessened by the fact that we know what the monsters look like well before the final showdown. Still, the fear from the actors feels real (which makes sense, since apparently Stewart hates water, according to Eubank), and it’s clear that the characters know they’ve brought this upon themselves.
Underwater examines hubris, certainly, but it also examines retribution in a very metatextual way. The film ultimately begs the question, “How far is too far?” Just before the credits roll, we get the answer in the form of a newspaper graf, which is also how the exposition is established at the start. If you’ve been paying attention to the news at anytime in the last few decades, you likely won’t be surprised by the government response to this terrifying undersea disaster.
Ultimately, Underwater is 95 minutes of super tense horror underscored by close, shaky camera work, a creeping sense of dread, and a handful of jump scares to round out the fear. If you can stomach seeing Miller onscreen (with the knowledge that yes, he does die), you may very well enjoy this ride.