When the movies give us a small band of survivors battling unknown forces in outer space or in the future or in a cabin in the woods, they never give us six of one certain type of character or a half-dozen of another.
We don’t get SIX wisecracking comic relief guys who keep the jokes coming every step of the way, or a whole group of father- or mother-figure captain types willing to go down with the ship, or an entire team of inexperienced, terrified newbies who turn out to be more than up to the challenge, etc.
We get one of each!
Such is the case with the bottom-of-the-ocean, near-bottom-of-the-barrel, highly derivative and ultimately laughably ludicrous sci-fi horror flick “Underwater,” which MIGHT seem reasonably original if nobody had ever seen any of the “Alien” movies.
Eh. Not even then.
Despite some impressive production design, a few promising moments early on and valiantly sincere performances from a likable cast led by Kristen Stewart, “Underwater” eventually sinks like a half-ton boulder dropped into the sea. That’s in large part due to the increasingly murky visuals that might well capture what it would look like to be fighting for your life some seven miles beneath the surface of the ocean — but make for one maddening and irritating viewing experience.
At times the screen was so muddy I found myself wishing for the world’s largest bottle of Windex.
Director William Eubank (who exhibits some talent for artfully framed shots) plunges us right into the madness from the get-go.
There’s almost zero exposition other than an opening title sequence explaining there’s a massive research project at the bottom of the Marianas Trench, involving a crew of 316 literally disturbing the deepest floor of the Pacific Ocean in the interest of, I don’t know, mining for minerals and corporate greed and messing with Mother Nature and stuff like that.
Follow that intro with a few lines of melancholy, existential voice-over ruminations from Kristen Stewart’s Norah, and BOOM! Just like that, the entire underwater operation is rocked by what appears to be an enormous earthquake, nearly destroying the lab and leaving only a precious few survivors.
Spoiler alert! That ain’t no earthquake. There are some … creatures at the bottom of the sea, and they appear to be close cousins to so many voracious, lizard-like, vaguely humanoid, sharp-toothed monsters we’ve seen in so many other movies.
In addition to Norah, a mechanical engineer who has the resourcefulness of John McClane in “Die Hard” when it comes to sussing out a problem and doing whatever it takes to survive, we meet:
- The Captain (Vincent Cassel), a divorced father who says there’s only one way to safety: everyone must embark on a long and dangerous space-walk, I mean, ocean floor walk, to reach the control center for the main drill, which contains these cool pods that will launch you right up to the surface of the ocean just in the nick of time. How about that!
- Paul (T.J. Miller), a lovable, wisecracking but also brave goofball with tattoos covering his torso, a stuffed bunny he adopts as a mascot — and a joke for every occasion.
- Smith (John Gallagher Jr.), a solid and reliable good guy who’s in love with Emily (Jessica Henwick), a young research assistant who is in a constant state of panic and keeps saying things like, “I can’t do this!” and, “I’ve never seen anyone die before!”
Stewart’s Norah rocks a Slim Shady-era Eminem haircut and is a badass, take-charge heroine, even as the filmmakers keep finding excuses to have her stripped down to sports bra and panties. (Ooh, shades of Ripley in “Alien,” only far more gratuitous and obvious.)
Norah seems to be the only one in the group who knew everyone else before the calamity — including the occasional corpse they come across, sometimes in straight-out “Jaws” fashion. Leave it to good ol’ Norah to identify the body and explain who that was. Thanks Norah!
As the team tries to make its way to safety, “Underwater” shamelessly borrows from films ranging from “2001: A Space Odyssey” to “Gravity” to “Godzilla” in its never-ending quest to scare us out of our seats and amp up the drama.
Making matters worse, the screenplay overdoes it by giving tragic back stories to certain characters — as if the epic, life-or-death struggles they’re currently facing aren’t enough. Ah, now we understand the DEEPER meanings behind their actions. Sigh.
“Underwater” breaks no new ground as a sci-fi horror flick — other than as a possible contender for the murkiest movie ever made.