UNDERWATER (2021) is a decent popcorn flick that nonetheless drags, a problem that could have been solved with a traditional first act and a little more character agency. Let me explain.
Mechanical engineer Nora (Kristen Stewart) works on an underwater drilling rig at the bottom of the Mariana Trench. When an earthquake damages the facility, she collects other survivors and faces a long struggle to escape. As there are no escape pods left (plenty of the crew died and there still weren’t enough pods at the main base, so somebody needs to talk to management about the terrible safety features), they must walk underwater to another drill, which offers incredible dangers due to the heavy pressure on the ocean floor. And there are far more horrific dangers among the ruins, creatures stirred up and hungry in a story that was probably pitched as, THE ALIEN meets THE MIST and THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE.
There are some likeable elements here. The monsters that appear based on the Cthulhu mythos. The claustrophobic feeling of being trapped at the bottom of the sea. The likeable cast of actors including Vincent Cassel, Mamoudou Athie, John Gallagher Jr., and T.J. Miller. The overall competence and effect.
In my view, however, the film suffers from several flaws, ultimately making it kind of boring for me. First, there is no first act. We jump right into the crisis, so there’s no real character arc for anybody, I don’t have a feel for the work that goes on in the rig, and everybody feels like a placeholder: Noble Captain, Lovable Girl We Want to Live, Comic Relief Guy. I don’t think Stewart is a bad actress, but her style is a bit monotone, which doesn’t serve her otherwise unknowable character well. As a result, I didn’t really feel invested in anybody. Second, the physics of being that deep underwater aren’t well explained or respected; it would have been good to be told one or two simple rules, and then the film would strictly follow them as an obstacle. Finally, the scenes in the water are dark such that you have no real sense of place, and the characters have almost no agency to protect themselves, basically walking around until somebody sees something, they all stop and stare, and then one of them gets plucked for lunch. This worked for THE MIST because we saw everything clearly before the mist fell, and our imagination could fill everything in. Not so much here.
Overall, I found UNDERWATER compelling for its spectacle and basic curiosity how it would end, putting this film in the junk food category of just turn off your brain for a while, make some popcorn, and wile away a few hours.