Despite the trappings of its familiar parts, Underwater is science fiction without nihilism. The movie is made up of the DNA of Blade Runner and Aliens, specifically the latter, but the humane script by Brian Duffield (Insurgent) allows the audience to hope for the character’s survival against the odds of such movie structures.
Kristen Stewart stars as Nora, who works as a mechanical engineer for an underwater drilling expedition. She’s well-liked by her Captain (Vincent Cassel) and crewmates. The first telling moment of her character is when she spares a spider in the sink. “How’d you get down here?” she asks.
Stewart spends most of the film pant-less, finishing the runtime with an aesthetic to make an independent pro wrestler proud: knee and elbow pads, sports bra, tiny shorts—all in black. She’s certainly a standout visual in style alone. The dive suits aren’t bad either, with lots of intricate details over a white color scheme.
Underwater plays with common fears: claustrophobia, isolation, and the unknown, as any film or television episode might that borrows so heavily from Aliens. The survivors have to keep moving, though each new place they find seems worse than the last. There seems to be a point about drilling our natural reserves, but it’s only explicit once during the final thirty minutes.
The opening and end credits are a corny “spinning newspaper” type of info dump with allusions to a political message. This movie takes place in or near the Marianas Trench, where plenty of aquatic surprises kept hidden from human eyes for centuries. Nora and the other workers might be ready for a new fish or two, but when the facility is suddenly torn apart, they have to fight against water and its denizens.
This could have been expectantly dull, but Stewart’s performance holds everything together. She’s tough, but not a cliché “strong female,” showing signs of PTSD early on while still doing the best she can to find survivors. I like that she’s expressive despite the obvious mental block of some kind. She’s lost someone in a past life, and her actions have this motivation in mind, but that’s not all. She genuinely cares about her teammates (played by TJ Miller and Jessica Henwick). The “one coward/slimeball” teammate trope isn’t teased here, nor does it need to be, so I found myself genuinely sad when someone would perish.
Not to say that William Eubank’s film is all shiny crystals. People explode into bits from faulty equipment. They plummet, and they fail to take on creatures that resemble the human hybrid from Alien Resurrection. Things get ugly, yet the film keeps its humanity at the core. It might not break ground in terms of genre, but the film actually cares about its characters, making it infinitely more watchable than the knock-offs who live and die by their copy and paste fodder.