Kristen Stewart in Underwater (2020),
Kristen Stewart stars in Twentieth Century Fox’s “Underwater”.

Underwater (2020) Review

There are only so many ways to tell a story, and some of the rules cannot be broken. One of the rules is to give audiences enough information about the characters, setting, motivations, crisis, and more in the first act of the movie. Underwater folds those foundations into later parts of the film, and the story doesn’t work because of it.

Plot Summary

Underwater takes place in the near future where an underwater drilling exploration is taking place roughly 7 miles below sea level. When the film begins, audiences are introduced to Norah (Kristen Stewart) who is a mechanical engineer. As she’s brushing her teeth one day, the installation suffers a breach, and water comes pouring in. Now, she and a handful of survivors, including her Captain (Vincent Cassel), must walk the ocean floor to get to another location where there might be a few lifepods left. Unfortunately, the drilling appears to have unleashed underwater monsters.

Underwater (2020) cast
L to R: Vincent Cassel, Jessica Henwick, T.J. Miller, Kristen Stewart, and Mamoudou Athie star in Twentieth Century Fox’s “Underwater”.

Considerations

Underwater’s production value is great. The sets look believable, the underwater scenes look real, and the cinematography is beautiful. It’s obvious that a lot of thought was put into the visuals.

Additionally, the cast does an exceptional job with the material they have to work with. Granted, this film doesn’t call for nuanced acting. Instead, the actors just need to exhibit the extremes of emotions, like fear, anger, despair, etc. Nevertheless, Kristen Stewart and Vincent Cassel manage to eke out just a little bit more from their roles to hint at extra dimensions to their otherwise flat characters.

The biggest problem with Underwater is that it has no first act, essentially. In the first few minutes of the movie, all audiences get is Norah brushing her teeth and waxing poetic about darkness and time. Before viewers can digest those cryptic scraps of philosophy, the installation begins shuddering as water breaches the walls and floods the corridors. As Norah is running for her life, other characters get introduced at the height of this crisis. So, with the tension ramped up to its upper limit and with things exploding or imploding on screen, there’s no time to care about any of these characters.

Personally, I am a big fan of this sub-sub-genre.

For a film like Underwater, an extended first act would have gone a long way in telling a satisfying story. Without an adequate first act, audiences don’t get to know the characters, don’t understand their motivations or backstories, and don’t have a feel for the installation the characters are in. As a result, viewers will feel very removed from what’s happening.

Since there isn’t any information that would normally come from a first act, moviegoers can’t have an opinion on whether or not the characters’ decisions are good or smart or will likely result in failure or success. So, it’s hard to have expectations. And without expectations, audiences are just watching people do things.

The other symptom that arises from this super short first act structure is that some foundational elements that are normally set up in the first act are placed later in the film instead. The best example of this is when two survivors are having a conversation about their dogs late in the film. It’s a bonding moment, and its inclusion is understandable, but why is it happening now while there are monsters all around?

Personally, I am a big fan of this sub-sub-genre. There’s horror. Then there’s sci-fi horror. Then there’s the monster sci-fi horror set underwater or in space or in a remote base surrounded by harsh terrain. Some of my favorite movies to rewatch are DeepStar Six, Leviathan, Pandorum, and of course, Aliens. In all of those films, there are survivors that you get to know early, there are monsters, and there is an imminent threat that forces the survivors to face the monsters in order to live. It’s a simple formula that just works. Underwater doesn’t quite follow that formula, and the film suffers for it.

Final Thoughts

After watching the film and comparing it to the trailer, it’s obvious that there is significantly more story than what audiences got. From the brief segments stitched together, one can see burgeoning relationships, backstories, and character depth. The marketing agency that cut the trailer together knew what audiences wanted to see in Underwater. I wish that version had made to theaters.

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