Saturday, January 11, 2020

Oceanic Dread

Kristen Stewart in Underwater (2020)

Underwater (2020, directed by William Eubank) is a relentless horror movie that puts its foot on the gas at the outset and never lets it up. In this regard its a throwback to movies like The Terminator or The Hidden, films in which anything that doesn't immediately serve the narrative on screen is cheerfully thrown over the side. It's built for speed. It has a visceral immediacy. It's a film whose plot can be summed up as, "Oh shit oh shit oh shit." It has the pop vitality of really good pulp fiction. Somehow, it manages to be more than that. Underwater is the best kind of genre film, in so far as it uses genre as a crucible for its characters. Its characters do not reveal themselves in exposition or in heartfelt scenes of dialogue. They reveal themselves in their actions. In turn, their circumstances test them to destruction in ways that would elude more naturalistic filmmaking. In doing so, it quietly undermines the expectations of genre. It uses the tropes, sure, but it also subverts them.

The plot finds the crew of a deep sea drilling installation on the floor of the deepest part of the ocean scrambling to survive after an earthquake breaches the structural integrity of their facility. The pressure at that depth will implode the installation given enough time, and it's a race to find safety through an increasingly dangerous and ruined environment. The protagonist is Norah Price, a mechanical engineer who navigates her way toward the escape pods picking up survivors as she goes. At one point, she's obliged to close a bulkhead trapping two other people on the other side. It haunts her. Unfortunately, the escape pods are gone by the time she and her crewmates make it to the hub, but there they find their Captain, Lucien, and two other survivors. Lucien proposes that they need to walk on the floor of the ocean to the Roebuck, the newest drilling installation, where they can take the escape pods there to safety. There are challenges with this plan, though. They likely don't have enough oxygen to make it to the Roebuck, the facility is coming down around their heads and is likely to have a meltdown when its power generator overloads, and, as they discover soon enough, there are hostile things in the water....

Kristen Stewart in Underwater (2020)

Okay, Underwater is not particularly original in its conception. You could name a dozen or more films that are influences, including one key scene that's stolen wholesale from Gravity. Some people are bothered by this, but I've sat through enough Alien rip-offs that another one hardly causes me any discomfort at all anymore. This is the nature of genre, after all. What is genre but a common pool of tropes and archetypes used repeatedly by a category of film? There are very few wholly original movies, let alone wholly original horror movies. And this film ain't one of them. It's how the movie uses these elements that makes it worth watching. For example: Kristen Stewart's Norah is a familiar type of character. She's Ripley, or some other final girl. Stewart's visual images here is subtly coded queer, though, and not just because the actress herself is queer. They've given her a butch blond buzzcut and she spends most of the film in a utilitarian sports bra--perhaps as a commentary on Ripley's underwear at the end of Alien, but also an interpolation of the Sarah Connor wifebeater. Her character isn't explicitly queer, but the visual is likely to perk up the gaydar of queer women everywhere. In past years, such a character would be a threat to the masculinity of some male hero or would be monster chum in short order, but here, it's not even commented upon (the movie does go to pains to suggest that Norah is straight given her scant backstory). In any event, the notion that Norah is a variant of either Ripley or, say, Amy Steele or Heather Langenkamp breaks down as the film progresses. Her profession, for one thing, codes her as hyper-competent, and the movie shows her using those skills as a matter of course rather than just telling us that she has them. This is usually how male action heroes are presented. Women have to discover resources within themselves, but Norah starts with those resources. More, the end of the film finds Norah faced with a solution that is the antithesis of the idea of a final girl. Like many a savant in other creature features, she's a haunted and driven monster hunter in the end.

Kristen Stewart and Vincent Cassell in Underwater (2020)

This film is surprisingly female-centric. With the exception of Lucien--played by the great Vincent Cassell--the male members of the cast are mostly interchangeable. The film tries to give them personality quirks to distinguish them from one another, but in my head, they're coded as "the black dude," "the dude with the rabbit," and "the other dude." The other principal character is Emily, played by Jessica Henwick, and she's the sort of character who ends up as monster chum in other movies. Green, emotional, terrified. But she's also the scientist character. Emily is the character who has to find reserves of strength inside herself to survive rather than Norah. Her friendship with Norah is the emotional core of the film, if the film can be said to have such a thing. Lucien, it should be noted, is a doppelganger for Norah. Both of them carry the same emotional burden. Both of them in turn bear the burden of command. Norah, Emily, and Lucien benefit enormously from having terrific actors playing them, too. Stewart at this point is one of the finest actors of her generation and she brings a gravitas to her role that might have been absent from a similar character even ten years ago. Cassell, too. Henwick has a thankless set of character traits and manages to make something with them regardless of the genre role in which she's stuck. She's better than her character and the movie itself is better for that.

Kristen Stewart in Underwater (2020)

The craft of the film is familiar enough. The used future of Alien has become the used present of today, at least in movies. This is nominally science fiction only because a facility like the one depicted here hasn't yet been built; not for want of it being possible. The film's monsters are agreeably Lovecraftian--Deep Ones as re-imagined by contemporary special effects--and the film's big boss at the end could unapologetically stand in for one of the Great Old Ones and not feel out of place. Given the setting, he might even be the Great Cthulhu himself. The film's major flaw is that it only ever gives us a clear view of one of its monsters--a little baby one that bears a familial resemblance to the chestburster alien--while concealing almost all of its others in the murk of the water. The film also indulges in a fair bit of chaos cinema to intensify its narrative drive, though the way it uses it in subjective POV shots or through the eye of cameras carried by the characters is certainly defensible. The film is at its best when it maintains a clear view of just how fucked its characters truly are and edits its sequences with a clear view of the geography of the scene. It does this enough to forgive its occasional lapses.

I wasn't really thinking about any of this while I was watching the film. Underwater isn't a film that lends itself to introspection while you're in the moment. As it unfolds on screen, it doesn't give the audience time to think. It grabs them by the short hairs and pulls them along. Fortunately, it's not a film that falls apart when you do have time to think about it. It's a pretty good b-picture in an era where good b-pictures are increasingly absent from theaters. I'm glad I saw this in the theater rather than on streaming. It's a film that benefits from the big screen.

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