If you were to make a list of signs that a movie is in potential trouble, one of the first things that will jump out at you is the timeline from filming to release. "Underwater" was filmed in 2017, this is 2020, that means it has been percolating for three years. A second indicator that you are in trouble is that you have a horror film opening in January. The first month of the year is the graveyard of the dregs for new releases. It is for counter programming to the big holiday releases that are still playing and collecting on their critical acclaim. Studios notoriously put films they have no faith in out at this time of year. Horror films often are the pawns in a game of movie release chess and they are sacrificed at this time all the time. Finally, Kristen Stewart, action star, is just not a description that anyone will pull out of their memory. So "Underwater" has a few strikes against it before the lights go down.
On the other hand, there were some rumors from early punters that it is better than you would expect. I don't think I've ever mentioned "Rotten Tomatoes" as a resource for any review I have ever done on this site, but "Underwater" was rated "Fresh" on the web site for the ticket purchase, so as I always do, I hoped for the best. Francis Bacon said "Hope is a good breakfast, but it is a bad supper." My dinner this evening was not very good. I can't say the film is terrible, but I can tell you it is not good, and there are several reasons.
To start with the first failing, the story attempts something that just doesn't work very well. Most films like this set up the characters by letting us meet them in the normal course of their lives. We usually get a map of the environment so we can get a fix on the eventual horizon. There will be some foreshadowing which increases the tension before the main story begins. "Underwater" eschews this approach, plunging us into the story without any set up except some cryptic headlines briefly flashed on the screen during the credit sequence. We know nothing about the job, the technology or the people before disaster strikes. So the film is going to depend on spectacle to draw us in, and this is a story set almost seven miles underwater, where there is no light and no horizon. We can't really tell what has happened to the station that the characters are on, except from the inside, and it looks like any other building collapse interior you have seen in a movie.
When we finally do get a set of six characters set up in an escape plan, you can pretty much say who is going to die and the order in which they are going to go. This is a horror film that is so conventional that it reinforces one of the oldest tropes a a black character in horror. This is a concept that has been parodied in horror comedies for years. I'll let you figure out everything else, but if you have seen an action disaster film or horror film in the last fifty years, you will know. At least with "Alien" we got to care about those characters before their demise.
The dialogue in the film is almost imperceptible at times. Vincent Cassel's accent is laid on a little thick at times and everyone else practically whispers. Meanwhile, the dialogue and exposition are drown out by the cacophony of alarms, explosions and screaming. The exposition is so vague that we have no idea what the goal is that we should be rooting for. I guess we are just supposed to hope that they don't all die, but it is not clear before what. T.J. Miller, whose presence is another indicator of how long ago this movie was made, could easily be mistaken for playing the same part as he did in "Cloverfield". When we finally get the reveal of what is out there in the murky water, it looks like a prequel to that creature feature.
One other way that the film sinks to mediocrity, is by splicing on an environmentalist theme and then adding a dollop of corporate conspiracy to finish off the recipe. The end credits suggest more elements to the story that never appeared to be critical to what was happening. You can't just retro fit the movie which has played out with some theme that makes no sense. Anyway, I am a sucker for crappy January films. So far this is my best film of the year and my worst. Let's see how it all pans out when "Dolittle" arrives in a week.