If you had told me ten years ago that Kristen Stewart would be staring in three major Hollywood productions released within 6 months of each other, with her role in Underwater channelling Ripley from the classic 1979 horror flick Alien, I would have slapped you across the face with my well-worn copy of Twilight. But here we are, and boy am I glad I was wrong. Providing tension and plenty of scares, Underwater not only showcases the horrors that live within the deep blue but also allows Stewart to shine.
The film follows a group of deep-sea researchers exploring the depths of the Mariana Trench while drilling down seven miles (about eleven kilometres), for a reason that never really becomes clear, to soon discover that they’ve awakened something powerful instead. Though initially the film takes its time, with unusually long opening credits delivering clichéd newspaper-exposition and some opening narration, it doesn’t pull any punches and within five minutes we’re dunked headfirst into the collapsing Kepler 822 Station. Our heroine, Norah Price (Kristen Stewart) races in her skivvies to beat the water and on her way collects the five other survivors (Vincent Cassel, T.J. Miller, Jessica Henwick, John Gallagher Jr. and Mamoudou Athie) along the way. With the only working escape pods in their station already gone, the group hatch up a plan to make their way to the main drilling station by walking across the bottom of the ocean, still unaware that some sort of Lovecraftian horror stalks them through the murky depths.
Stewart is undoubtedly the star and utilises her signature brand of “less is more” acting to showcase Norah’s grief in losing her teammates and within her personal losses that slowly are revealed throughout the film. Initially, I was sceptic about T. J. Miller as he took on yet another comedic relief role within Paul, as his particular brand of humour seemed out of place in this kind of film, but I found myself getting attached his character, his pranks and his weird, yet endearing, obsession with Alice in Wonderland.
As expected, the plot of the film is thin with not much driving force, but it excels in all the ways that really matter. Though it has been referred to as a horror flick, I found that it rested more in the thriller category, supplying the audience with plenty of suspense and tension without much room to stop and catch your breath. Of course, there were plenty of jump scares around, but the film’s fuel was the fear that lies within the unknown, as the creatures that hunt our group go from a possibly previously undiscovered species to something from the Upside-Down. Shaky camera cinematography added to the anxiety around what the creatures were, which became frustrating at points, though it is to be expected of the horror/thriller genre. The real scare factor was ultimately delivered by the film’s most basic premise – being hunted while stuck in the deepest trench in the ocean with almost no hope of escape. Indeed, director William Eubank, whose majority of credits rests in cinematography, relied heavily on the senses to encapsulate the claustrophobia of the entire experience, with torches barely able to pierce the veil of the shadowy waters and moments of deafening explosions obscuring the dialogue.
What I really appreciated was the distinct lack of gore in Underwater and its refusal to revel in the carnage, a trope that a majority of its horror contemporaries seem to rely on much too heavily. Don’t get me wrong, there were deaths and they were anything but peaceful, but rather than depending on an overabundance of blood and guts to instil fear into the audience, the violence in these scenes was instead used to heighten the tension and dread organically.
While it may not be the most original plot, Underwater uses every single part of its premise to create a captivating and suspenseful ride that leaves you breathless and needing to know what happens next.
Underwater is in cinemas January 23rd