Underwater, No One Can Hear You Scream (Movie Review)

In Underwater, Kristen Stewart sinks deep into an abyss, discovering something alien in the process, as in Alien circa 1979. For 93 minutes, this genre pic is precisely the kind of movie that opens at the beginning of the year, for better or worse. Still, I’m a fan of the “small group of scientists who bite off more than they can chew and find themselves isolated” trope, so I didn’t mind.

As she did in last year’s under-appreciated Charlie’s Angels reboot, Stewart again provides just enough to ground her role as a deep-sea engineer. The part is essentially Ripley 2.0, but with more humor, a cooler haircut, and the required doses of imminent danger to flee from (sadly, no cat, but there is a stuffed bunny!). One might wish this moderately-budgeted flick had a script with more ideas going for it than merely aping better films, but hey, it’s January. If you’re looking for matinee sci-fi thrills on the big screen, previous years have been a lot worse (remember 1998’s Sphere? Better yet – don’t).

Opening in a community bathroom miles below the surface, Norah (Stewart) brushes her teeth. She’s about to spit (as one does) when she spots a tiny spider. This is deep underwater mind you. How did it get there? Are there more? Regardless, it poses no threat. In fact, it’s having a hard time escaping the sink. Norah grabs a paper towel, providing an assist to the eight-legged being. Director William Eubank, who demonstrated a real affinity for sci-fi’s smaller moments in 2014’s The Signal, stages this note-perfect moment between Norah and the spider. I was hoping for more scenes like that.

After a few minutes, the film proper begins with explosions, many deaths, and the requisite small group of survivors who must figure out how to escape to the earth’s surface within a matter of hours, before a reactor core melts down (Mondays, am I right?).

Despite a solid cast, which also includes Vincent Cassel, Jessica Henwick, John Gallagher Jr., Mamoudou Athie and, for comedy relief, T.J. Miller, the problem is more with the larger plot points. With a tight runtime, we only learn so much about this ragtag crew. That’s fine since, let’s be honest, most of them probably won’t make it past the first forty minutes. How they are offed, one-by-one, is one of the film’s strengths though, as I was (mostly) surprised when the big on-screen deaths occurred. Still, the narrative only goes so far as a whole.

Fortunately, like Scott’s seminal Alien, there’s an emphasis on the characters being working-class, save for Cassel’s Captain. Their need to survive, their longing to be with loved ones, and the way they all freak out about the things they find – or more correctly, the things which find them – is relatable. Miller’s character is the one with the aforementioned mentioned stuffed bunny as a kind of security blanket, which earns some respect.

Structurally, the goals of the characters getting from one underwater station to the next are video gamey (“Oh no, how many oxygen capsules to do we have left?”). The big bulky suits everyone wears screams Gears of War too. There’s a section midway through, where the remaining members must navigate the pitch-black ocean floor via poorly lit signposts as the numbers dwindle down from 20 to 1. It felt like a shoutout to the indie game SOMA. If that’s the case, screenwriters Brian Duffield and Adam Cozad have my respect.

Underwater might barely satisfy as an heir to classics of the genre like Alien or John Carpenter’s The Thing, but Stewart handles the material well. The last act is appropriately Jules Verne-esque. I won’t spoil anything, but there is a sequence where Norah confronts a creature, which turns out to be an incredibly informed, thrilling nod to one of Alien‘s most iconic moments. It took my breath away. More of that, please.

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