Once upon a time when I was a little kid living in sunny California, an older neighbor dude kindly offered to teach my two older brothers and me how to use a scuba tank in our pool! Obviously it was the most exciting proposition human ears had ever heard. Firstly though, the neighbor insisted on giving us a few safety tips. He then went on to explain that if a person were to come out of the water too quickly an air bubble would get in their brain and they’d die instantly. Say what now? My two older brothers were unmoved by this information and gamely tried the scuba tank out but when it came to my turn I was way too terrified to proceed. If mistakes were possible then I would certainly be the one to make them and I didn’t want to die in my own pool. In retrospect, I doubt I could have met my demise under so much supervision in the great depths of a merely six-foot deep pool but the guy had freaked me out so badly that there was no way I was going to take any chances. All this to say that UNDERWATER sorta hit me where I live from the get-go. I felt like I was holding my breath for two hours and I even worried that I am now at the age when a heart attack is a very real possibility.
UNDERWATER is a legitimately awesome mash-up of horror, sci-fi and disaster flick that really deserves a better title (I’ve come up with PRESSURE, BREATHE and THE DEPTHS OF HELL). It has already been completely dismissed by critics and audiences alike but that only puts it in the same company as THE THING, BLADE RUNNER and (yay) DEEP RISING (to name but a few). I guess I don’t exactly have my finger on the pulse of the nation because I absolutely dug it from ocean floor to ceiling. Besides being a non-stop thrill ride, it played me like a fiddle when it came to addressing issues like getting over a loved one’s death and the simple human art of always moving forward no matter how bleak things appear. There were also some nice nods to ALICE IN WONDERLAND (drowning in tears, “we’re all mad here” graffiti and a plush white toy rabbit) that I greatly approved of. Plus it’s got a sense of wonder and it’s often difficult to determine whether what you are beholding is hideous or beautiful. That’s a space I can’t resist.
UNDERWATER is the type of movie that had me physically straining my eyes to SEE more. There are all these murky depths and grainy textures and things flow in and out of frame in a magical way. The brightest bursts of fluorescent color occur in fields of gray-grunge and I thought it was all very painterly for an action dispenser. Without ruining anything, I simply was not prepared for the colossal scope the movie is ultimately capable of delivering. I found the climax to be pretty much breathtaking. The cast is uniformly excellent too with KRISTEN STEWART delivering a strangely calming resolve, the great VINCENT CASSEL as a deeper than you’d think captain and T.J. MILLER as the requisite sarcastic comic relief (props to JESSICA HENWICK, JOHN GALLAGHER JR. and poor, poor MAMOUDOU ATHIE as well). Don’t listen to anybody who carps about the characters being slight. I think if you actually listen to them and hear their backstories and motivations, they’re built about as well as they can be considering the time restraints. I’m sure they’ll only strengthen and gel further with multiple viewings.
UNDERWATER is way more original than it will ever be given credit for. Sure, it’s impossible to ignore its debt to ALIEN but geez, I’m fine with that. ALIEN owes IT! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE (1958) several beers and we all stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. Bring on a dozen more movies with such noble aspirations! I’m all on board. I proudly go on record saying that I adored UNDERWATER not as “schlocky fun” or a “guilty pleasure” but as a well-made survival adventure film (and perhaps the very first undersea creature feature that’s not stingy with its monster(s)). It’s a heart-pounding dive that doesn’t mind contemplating humanity’s arrogant need to elbow its way into spaces that we don’t belong and it doesn’t shirk away from the emotional ramifications of death. This is colossal, Lovecraftian-sized spellbinding horror. Trust me, you’re going to be sorry if you miss it while it’s playing on the big screen.