If you’re looking to flee, better check under the sea …
Did you know we’ve spent more time on the surface of the moon than in the deepest parts of the ocean? It’s true! We only been to the bottom of the Mariana Trench seven times, and only four of those were manned attempts, the first time in 1960 with the Bathyscaphe Trieste. That expedition would be best described as what we call in the diving community as a “bounce dive,” where you basically go down and come up without too much dicking around. It is a dark, merciless place, with water temperatures near freezing (1 to 4 degrees Celcius), in the Hadopelagic zone where no light penetrates, and with water pressure at 1094 atm or atmospheres of pressure (for the record, recreational diving limit is 4 atm).
Also, the “Hado” in Hadopelagic stands for “Hades”, as in, you know, the Bad Place. It’s about as unforgiving a place on Earth as you can imagine. If you want to take a virtual dive into the Challenger Deep, check out this fun link: The Deep Sea (by Neal Agarwal)
But to quote Dr. Ian Malcolm, life, uh, finds a way. Not a lot, but some. At the deepest depths, it’s mostly little crustaceans called amphipods, amoeba-like creatures and weird filter-feeding xenophyophores, which look like heads of lettuce. If you’re expecting Krakens and the last refuge of the megalodon shark (which is extinct, don’t make me cut you), you’ll be disappointed. There is the concept of deep-sea gigantism, matey, but there do be a limit. Arrr.
But forget all that, as we begin the 2020 movie Underwater! Let me start all this off with – I enjoyed the movie, and I think you’ll have fun if you go see it. If you know anything about marine engineering, SCUBA diving, marine biology or fluid dynamics, you’re going to have a running dialogue of “AGH NOW THAT’S NOT HOW THIS WORKS” for much of the movie, but you’re just gonna have to remind yourself this is a movie, and suspension of disbelief is a thing. The movie hits the gas almost straightaway, with Kristen Stewart doing her best Ellen Ripley, and cycling through the first three movies of the Alien franchise pretty quickly – and while this sounds a little reductive, I think we can all agree that “Ellen Ripley” is pretty much a cinematic archetype now, so using it and her here works pretty well. She’s tough but vulnerable, scared but smart, and Stewart hits the notes pretty well. I’ve been critical of Kristen Stewart before, her recent Saturday Night Live appearance particularly, but she carries the movie from start to finish. Vincent Cassel plays her captain and Vincent Cassel is pretty much great in everything and doesn’t disappoint here. There’s a scene about halfway through the movie that at the time plays weird, but when we get the context later, it really ties the movie together. T.J. Miller, toxic reputation notwithstanding, adds a fun presence to the movie and the character is probably EXACTLY like I’d be in crisis scenario, so forewarned if you’re on an expedition with me and it goes south – expect jokes.
The movie reconnects threads back and forth, in ways that pay off if you’re keeping score, and the claustrophobia and fear – not gonna lie, for the first 45 minutes of the movie, it felt like I was there, director William Eubank set the tone pretty much pitch perfect once we leave the underwater mining station. Marco Beltrami’s score gives the movie the ethereal, menacing vibe the deep ocean deserve, and the creature design (at least one of them) hearkens back to primal fears stirred up in other media. Overall, the movie owes a huge debt to the Alien franchise, but also to the works of certain 20th century American author… And here’s where you need to stop reading if you want to avoid spoilers.
If you’re hopping off the review, I basically give it 4 fins up out of 5.
Stop reading here to avoid spoilers!
Spoiler Space Ends!
It’s an H.P. Lovecraft movie — the xenomorphs have been replaced with the Deep Ones of The Shadow Over Innsmouth and alien queen with Cthulhu. They teased at the beginning, and in that Vincent Cassel scene I mentioned, about how the deep ocean brings a tenuous grasp on sanity that can plunge you into madness, but frustratingly, the movie doesn’t want to make the connection completely. It’s like they started with the idea of making a Lovecraft movie, got scared about how it would play out, and then went full Alien. Which is SOOOOO frustrating, because there’s a scene at the end which brought all my giddy fantasies about a big-screen version of Call of Cthulhu to temporary realization. Someone in Hollywood will eventually have to have the guts to make a big budget adaptation of Lovecraft’s world. They should have done it here.