When Scorsese compared superhero films to theme parks, he was doing a disservice to theme parks. “Cinema is an art form that brings you the unexpected,” he suggested in his much-vetted New York Times op-ed. “In superhero movies, nothing is at risk.” Of course, the first half of the article is just an ancillary drive-by on the Marvel machine in which he rightfully critiques their lack of “revelation, mystery or genuine emotional danger”; the latter is full of important criticism about Disney’s cultural stranglehold. But parts of his dismissal, surely superfluous pejoratives, irked me, and I felt like other movies took collateral damage: are revelation, mystery, and/or genuine emotional danger overrated?
Despite knowing very little about director William Eubank’s Underwater beyond the close-up poster of half of Kristen Stewart’s slightly-worried face and blonde buzz cut, I kinda knew what I was getting: an addition to the list of high concept girl vs creature feature films in the vein of the Blake Lively shark movie, The Shallows (2016) or the Kaya Scodelario gator movie, Crawl (2019). Formal precision and visceral thrills aided by clunky writing, with larger thematic attempts at family or grief or mortality (take your pick) as window dressing. These are the actual theme park movies: big, linear death traps, deep-sea diver simulators that need no explanation.
In Underwater, Norah (Stewart) is a deep-sea mechanical engineer working in Kepler Station, an enormous underwater lab that sits somewhere near the bottom of the Mariana Trench. The opening minutes catch Norah bathroom-mirror-monologuing about the isolation of working at such extreme depths when an earthquake (or something similar) ruptures part of the site. Managing to outrun an endlessly-cascading series of highly-pressurised explosions, Norah, alongside Rodrigo (Mamoudou Athie), rendezvous with a motley crew of fellow scientists: Captain Lucien (Vincent Cassel), Paul (TJ Miller), Emily (Jessica Henwick), and Smith (John Gallagher Jr.).
What follows is exactly what you’d expect from a film of this genre: a long, deceptively linear lunge towards a hopeful reprieve, wonky emotional arcs, and cheap, satisfying thrills. The crew don Pacific Rim-looking spacesuit get-ups, jump onto the ocean floor and work their way towards Roebuck Station, their best and probably only chance of survival. Underwater’s strength through all this bonkers deep-sea traversal is its clean-cut bouts of exposition, which never last too long beyond the initial war room roundtable planning. The film’s characters, while frightened as shit – Stewart’s nervous, breathy performance recalls her breakout role – are quietly determined in their survival efforts; they’re competent and compliant and the only real talking comes from a thankfully-mellowed TJ Miller, acting like a goose between instructions to get from A to B.
The story – or what can be salvaged from its patchwork of referentiality – is secondary. What can’t be pared down to Brian Duffield and Adam Cozad’s screenplay is likely cribbed from a range of films and videogames: the misty moodiness of early James Cameron, from The Abyss (1989) to Aliens (1986); the interior design of Bioshock’s (2007) underwater cityscape and Dead Space’s (2008) labyrinthine passages; and the appearance of Miller and Gallagher Jr. strengthens its evocations of Cloverfield, through its catastrophic tone and mystery. Of course, in a film of this calibre, it would be remiss to not mention its Paul W.S. Anderson-ness, complete with detached spatial overviews, corporate greed framing (largely conveyed through bookended newspaper clipping montages), and Alice in Wonderland references.
What comes to the fore in the absence of narrative distinctiveness is Bojan Bazelli’s (responsible for last year’s explosive 6 Underground) cinematography, a mix of claustrophobic close-ups and lucid handheld, with the occasional found footage flourish. Norah and co. uncover a race of lanky, humanoid swimmer boys with droopy mouths that open outwards (aka the only currently viable monster design): Lovecraftian monsters that get bigger as the crew go deeper. There’s little scarier than the infinite depths of the ocean, and Bazelli is keenly aware: live-cams from the scientists’ suits are used to peer into the cloudy depths, stringing jump scares through the negative space of dirty water. The sea’s limitlessness forms the perfect mood set, though as the film’s scale gradually enlarges and the characters move (or are vortexed around) through large open spaces, this murkiness becomes more frustrating than compelling, like a mild case of swimmer’s ear. Eubank works best in confinement, when his form is complemented by Underwater’s exquisite sound design, chaotic but concise, as if being engulfed in a void.
Worse than Marvel’s lack of “genuine emotional danger” is that all their films are ugly as shit: all mush, no grit; empty crevasses of special effects in service of little. You’ve seen the tweets dunking on Endgame’s (2019) flary-ass 2000s wallpaper cinematography. They are soulless; in those screencaps, you can practically see the poorly-lit void where their soul should be. I can deal with narrative inconsistencies and cardboard cut-out characters. Story is overrated, shut the fuck up! I’m not here to be moved! I just want some semblance of formal competence, some stress, some fighting, big creatures that are scary and gross. I want to sweat a little, even if I’ve seen it all before. In his piece, Scorsese pined for something “absolutely new” – unattainable by committee, likely by auteur. But I want to be comforted by these B-movie indulgences that relish in the familiar. Real theme park stuff. Luckily, Underwater has this in bucketloads. Please and thank you.
Underwater is now showing in Australian cinemas.
Samuel Harris is an early career academic, an editor at Rough Cut and Michael Bay apologist. Do not tweet him at @samewlharris.