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Underwater

Effective March 2019, Disney officially took purchase of 20th Century Fox lock, stock, and barrel. Mere days ago (as of this writing), Disney announced that 20th Century Fox and Fox Searchlight would be respectively renamed “20th Century Studios” and “Searchlight Pictures”. Clearly, big changes are happening and the assimilation of the Fox media conglomerate is well underway.

But first, of course, there’s the matter of the $71.3 billion that Disney spent to close the deal. Obviously, they need to make that money back, and a good first step would be making use of the sunken assets over at 20th Century Fox. And in so many ways, precious few of the fallen studio’s assets are more sunken than Underwater.

(Side note: Another prime example is The New Mutants, the trailer for which finally debuted with this movie. Talk about sunken assets at Fox — just wait until the time finally comes to get into that story!)

Here we have a movie shot in the spring of 2017 on a reported budget of $80 million. I can’t find any reason why the film sat on a shelf for two and a half years, so I have to assume that Fox simply had no idea what to do with it. Then Disney took over the company and (presumably) saw this weird little horror movie ready to go and dumped it in a January weekend. Even if it totally bombs, it’ll still make more than the nothing that Disney spent on it. Easy money!

And then Disney went and cut ties with longtime Fox co-financier Chernin Entertainment only a week after the film premiered. Yeah, they’re clearly trying to make the most of what dead weight they have before dumping it.

Underwater is set in the near future, when the bottom of the goddamn Mariana Trench has been colonized by some generic shadowy conglomerate. A series of giant drilling stations have been set up down there to dig for whatever might turn a profit, even though conditions down there are debatably even less hospitable than in freaking outer space. All of this is helpfully established in the opening credits sequence.

Not even two minutes after the film opens, the inevitable happens. While it’s not immediately clear how or why, one of the drilling stations begins to fall apart. A few people escape to the surface, a lot more people die, and soon only six people are left on the station. Out of 316 crew on board.

Even worse, the station’s power generators have taken damage, which means that a literal nuclear meltdown is imminent, all the more reason to get the hell out of there. The good news is, there’s another drilling station roughly a mile away. The bad news is, because all their transports and comms are offline, they have to walk that mile across the ocean floor with what insufficient oxygen and patched-up diving suits they can find.

They don’t have enough oxygen to make any kind of mistake, they can’t see two feet in front of their faces, and they’re walking with giant bulky exo-suits through pressure of 80 goddamn tons per square inch, all because they’re at seven miles under the motherfucking ocean. Oh, and there are the unknown sea monsters out to attack them, did I mention that part? Because Lovecraftian underwater monsters are attacking them the whole time.

Kristen Stewart leads the cast, capably anchoring the film as our Ripley wannabe. It helps that her character is a mechanical engineer, so she lives by the strength of her intellect — something far more valuable than physical strength or weaponry made useless by the setting. In fact, she’s easily the best at navigating through fallen debris and caved-in spaces precisely because she’s the smallest of the gang.

Vincent Cassel is the de facto leader of our crew, as the captain of the fallen rig. I’ve seen Cassel do better work elsewhere, but he brings the necessary gravitas. Elsewhere, TJ Miller plays our comic relief, reminding us with every line why we collectively agreed he shouldn’t have a career anymore. Jessica Henwick plays the biologist who’s pretty much always the first one to collapse into a screaming, blithering mess. Rounding out the crew are John Gallagher Jr. and Mamoudou Athie, who… um… well, they’re just kinda there.

I could try and make the film into some kind of allegory for Exxon Valdez, Deepwater Horizon, or any oil pipeline you’d care to name, and those subtle timely undertones are indeed a significant part of what keeps the film grounded. But ultimately, that would take more effort than the movie justifies. It’s a 90-minute survival horror thriller with a straightforward premise, nothing more and nothing less.

This is undeniably a paper-thin movie. Yet precisely because it’s thin, it is lean. This is a movie that starts and ends with the action, not a moment sooner or later. This isn’t a movie that wastes its time on flashbacks or exposition dumps, and there’s no effort spared in speculating on the nature or motivation of our underwater beasties. Even the moments of pathos and character development are kept to the bare minimum, just enough to define the emotional stakes and give the kills some heft. Everything else is all about the forward momentum.

What’s better, the film doesn’t even need exposition dumps because so much of the world-building is done in the production design. The filmmakers love to linger on cheery corporate bullshit on posters and PA announcements. It helps to establish the impersonal corporate overlords as a constant offscreen presence while also serving as a comically dark contrast against the unfolding shitshow onscreen. And of course that’s not getting started on the superbly detailed sets or the really cool diving suits.

And what of the action? Well, the filmmakers find all sorts of clever ways to get us in the characters’ headspaces, conveying the claustrophobia, isolation, and panicked confusion of walking across the ocean floor while being hunted by some unseen threat. Unfortunately, this also means a few dark and incomprehensible moments in which it’s hard to keep track of what characters are in which of the identical diving suits getting thrown around. Overall, however, the filmmakers do a decent job of keeping everything as exciting and coherent as possible. It certainly helps that we have so few characters to keep track of, and that number gets to dwindling mighty quick.

I get why the studio held onto Underwater for so long. It’s a survival horror film made in a time when most horror films are made for a tenth of its budget. It’s too polished for DTV, but too thin to stand on its own against other multiplex fare.

What makes the difference is that this one doesn’t even try to be the start of a franchise. It’s not out to reinvent the wheel or outperform anyone else, and it’s not trying to make any kind of grand statement. The filmmakers set out with the clear goal of crafting a straightforward sci-fi creature feature, and that’s nothing more or less than exactly what they did.

It’s a harmless and fun way to spend 90 minutes. Not worth a full price ticket, but prime material for a second-run screening or DVD. That’s about the best anyone could expect from a January release.

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