You’re 20th Century Fox Studios and you’re in the throes of a business merger with the Disney Corporation.
In 2017 you completed a film (began filming in March and completed principal photography in May) that stars an actress perpetually bashed on social media for being a “bad actress” and whose star has waned since her smash teen vampire movie from a decade ago—and her starring-reboot of Charlie’s Angels became one of 2019’s biggest box office bombs. Her co-star is an actor who assaulted a pro-Trump Uber driver in 2016, got sucked into the eye of the Weinstein effect in 2017, was arrested on federal bomb threat charges on an Amtrak train in 2018, and then capped off his litany of legal issues with a Silicon Valley (HBO series) work place misconduct allegation.
So what do you do with that $80 million film (other sources say $50) starring Kristen Stewart and TJ Miller? What do you do with a film that received lukewarm responses in its test screenings and runs the risk of pro-Trump and #MeToo protests outside the theatres upon release?
You shelve that film for three years and wait for the Disney merger to finalize and for your lead actor’s legal issues to blow over. Then you release the film in January, one of the dreaded winter doldrums “dump months” (the others are February, August, and September) where films with lowered commercial and critical expectations go to die. The fact that your film grossed $7 million in the U.S on its opening weekend, with a worldwide opening-gross of $14 million, gives credence to Hollywood’s lack-of-faith marketing concept. It also doesn’t help that, upon release, Rotten Tomatoes rated your film at 53%, Metacritic scored it 49/100, CinemaScore graded it a “C” on an A+ to F scale, and PostTrack rated it 2/5 stars.
Hey, what the hell? James Cameron, what are you doing here, 10,000 meters down in the Pacific Rim? Yeah, I’ve been down this road, uh, Mariana Trench before. And that’s this film’s elevator pitch: James Cameron’s Aliens (1986) (and not Ridley Scott’s Alien) meets James Cameron’s The Abyss (1989).
Yep, for me—maybe not you—it’s just cinematic, aquatic déjà vu.
Now, we, the old codger video fringers of the ‘80s will load-in our cerebral-analog VHS copies of 20th Century Fox’s The Neptune Factor (1973), MGM Studios’ “snakes on a submarine” variant, Fer-de-Lance (1974), and the TV movie “prehistoric eggs on the ocean floor” variant, The Intruder Within, aka, The Lucifer Rig (1981). Then there’s the aquatic crop of The Abyss knockoffs released around 1990: Leviathan (bad Russian vodka monsters), Carolco Pictures’ DeepStar Six (giant anthropoid “sea scorpions” jarred loose-by-drilling), Roger Corman’s Lords of the Deep (psychic aliens and damaged ozone layer horseplay), Wayne Crawford’s (Jake Speed) rip The Evil Below (haunted ocean floor shipwreck baloney), and the R. Lee Emery (always awesome!) starring, The Rift, aka Endless Descent (evil underwater lab conducting DNA experiments).
Of course, the younger folks will load their DVD digital copies of Paul W.S Anderson’s 1997’s Event Horizon (yeah, we know that’s about Satan in a black hole . . . or something?), Barry Levinson’s Sphere (about an underwater black hole time-travel mission from the past or future . . . or something?), and 2000’s Walter Hill-disowned Supernova (again, yeah, we know, Satan in space . . . or something?). Then the younger yungins will recall the more recent Life (2017) starring Jake Gyllenhall (yeah, we know that was in space and not water, but work with us here).
And that brings us, well, underwater once again with this latest, grimy and dimly lit, science-fiction slasher fired from the James Cameron canons—with some small arms suppressive fire from Ridley Scott.
But wait. This isn’t the post-Alien late ‘80s. This is the 21st century.
Underwater was produced in the polluted backwash of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth (2006). But Al’s an old codger, like me, and Sam, the illustrious proprietor of B&S About Movies. So Underwater wasn’t made for us, or for the Al Gore youth brigade. Underwater is for those who rally around Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and support her Green New Deal initiative.
Thus, Underwater isn’t an irresponsible, mean big fish movie for the sake of being an irresponsible, mean big fish movie, say like, The Neptune Factor. Underwater is a responsible story; a story that drives home a “man-bad ocean-good” message. For the greedy and evil, right-wing industrious creatures known as man, with his witchery called “science,” has gone too far. The evil land dwellers above must endure the wrath of Amphitrite. All hail King Neptune!
As one of character reasons amid the mayhem, “We’ve drilled too deep. We’ve taken too much. “Now it’s [the ocean] taking back.”
What the hell? I thought I was supposed to go to movies and have fun; to escape the crap that is our world for an hour and a half. Nope. Welcome to the Greta Thunberg Show (which needs to be cancelled, posthaste), i.e., corporations are sacrificing people for profit . . . the oceans are in danger . . . it’s an earth-crisis event . . . climate change is killing us . . . we have to stop using fossil fuels. HOW DARE YOU!
Ugh. We get it, Bernie and Elizabeth. We need to stop fracking. And drilling. And eating cows. And driving our cars. We must ride our bikes and sit on piss-stained bus seats to get to our jobs. For man must acquiesce; we must give the world back to the alligators, the apes, the crocodiles, the leeches, the sharks, the slugs, the tarantulas, and the wolves. (It’s why we dedicated the first week of January to “Nature Run Amok” movies* at B&S About Movies.)
But alas, global warming doesn’t have a “physical body” to fear. You need a Jason, or Michael, or a Xenomorph. Weather isn’t an effective antagonist. Even the 2017 man-bad nature-good lesson that was Geostorm had to resort to weather satellite laser bombs . . . or something. So, in the tradition of Ishirō Honda (brilliantly) embodying mans’ err with nuclear power by way of the monster Godzilla, we get the global warming, man-bad nature-good created arthropods of Underwater.
Yes. The creatures of Underwater are meant to represent a pissed off Mother Nature seeking vengeance on greedy humans . . . or something.
Damn you, movie. Now I feel awful. After this movie I vow to eat one of Burger King’s cardboard veggie burgers and make a Joaquin Phoenix Joker-vow to wear the same outfit day-in-and-day-out, you know, so as to support Stella McCartney’s vision of our planet. I will Google search on how to turn my urine into drinkable water, use baking soda as a deodorant, and wash my clothes with rainwater-in-a-barrel.
Anyway, back to the movie.
Kristen Stewart is Norah Price, a cynical (is there any other character type in these “alien” films; must they all be malcontents rife with Prometheus-styled grimace-anxieties?) mechanical engineer on the Kepler 822, a deep-sea mining station. Her crewmates are excavating fossil fuels with the “controversial” Kepler Ocean Drill, seven miles under the sea for the “evil” military-industrial complex,
Weyland, uh, Tian Industries.
Then the ubiquitous earthquake hits and damages the ubiquitous, dingy and claustrophobic drilling station. But wait, it’s not an earthquake. It’s that damn creature known as man and their confounded Kepler Drill. They’ve disturbed the warm and cavernous, Mariana Trench-hydrothermal pocket home of a nightmarish, Lovecraftian Cthulhu-like monster and its ravenous, parasitic and symbiotic, anthropomorphic spawns. Yep, H.R Giger-inspired “sea arthropods” with human characteristics—replete with fishy faces and webbed fingers—attacked the station.
And the station springs a leak—with Kristen Stewart tumbling in slow motion for, you know, maximum, suspenseful effect. So between the flood and the oxygen depletion, the crew, headed by Captain Lucien (Vincent Cassel of 2002’s Irreversible, 2007’s Eastern Promises, 2010’s The Black Swan, 2016’s Jason Bourne) suit up in the bulky-heavy Alien ’79-era diving suits and schleps one mile across the ocean floor to an abandoned naval station, Roebuck Station 641, to access its escape pods. That’s if they make it: a pissed-off sea creature is in Jason Vorhees-mode picking them off one-by-one. Once at the station—cue John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982)—they discover a hatchling and a corpse of a sea creature. And that Lucien was previously stationed at Roebuck. Damn you, evil corporation! Damn right they covered it all up, again. Screw the Earth. Profit is king.
Director William Eubank’s first two, under-the-radar films, the low-budget science fiction dramas Love (2011) and The Signal (2014) rightfully received worldwide critical acclaim for their ingenuity on a tight budget. So to hear 20th Century Fox gave the director reins of Underwater to Eubank was a source of excitement for science fiction fans. (Both films are excellent; do seek them out.)
Sadly, with Underwater, Eubank got dealt a bad hand. Not even a director of his ingenuity and vision can overcome corporate media mergers and two publically derided lead actors.
Granted, while Underwater feels derivatively cribbed from other underwater-alien films, and the environmental message is a bit heavy handed, there’s no denying the script co-written by Brian Duffield (Insurgent) and Adam Cozard (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, The Legend of Tarzan) is smartly written. Eubank, Duffield, and Cozard know their sci-fi celluloid predecessors and they know that we, the ticket buyer, have seen at least one of those Alien-ripped antecedents (or, if you’re a film snobby dweeb like me and Sam, you’ve seen all of the aforementioned films in this review). So knowing that we are up to speed, they dispensed with the usual disaster film and monster film, half-hour set-ups of expositional character development before the catastrophe hits. Underwater gets right into the action. And that’s appreciated.
So again, while familiar, Underwater—in spite of Hollywood pariah TJ Miller’s acting-hysterics of playing the same old, smarmy cookie cutter “comic relief” sidekick he did in the Deadpool films—and thanks to gifted TV actor John Gallagher, Jr. (Law and Order: SVU, 2010’s Jonah Hex, 2016’s 10 Cloverfield Lane) killing it alongside France-bred actor Vincent Cassel—is instantly engaging. Critical bashing aside, Underwater clicks along with a nice pace at a very-tight, well-edited 95-minute run time.
William Eubank is the savior of science fiction films and I look forward to what he has to offer with his next film. He’ll be on that Golden Globe and Oscar stage, soon enough.
* Here’s the full list from our January 2020 “Nature Run Amok” week:
Birdemic: Shock and Terror (2010)
Cruel Jaws (1995)
Flu Birds (2008)
The Giant Leeches (1959)
Invasion of the Animal People (1959)
Invasion of the Bee Girls (1973)
Jaws: The Revenge (1987)
Kiss of the Tarantula (1975)
Monster Shark (1984)
Monster Wolf (2010)
War of the Insects (1968)
Night of the Cobra Woman (1972)
Play Dead (1981)
Sharks’ Treasure (1975)
The Uncanny (1978)
The Wasp Woman (1959)
Zombie 5: Killing Birds (1985)
And there’s even more “nature run amok” films with our December 2018 shark tribute week, “Bastard Pups of Jaws,” which features everything imaginable—from 1976’s Grizzly to 1977’s Orca, from 1979’s The Great Alligator all the way out to Renny Harlin’s 1999 shark romp, Deep Blue Sea.