"Underwater" Harnesses Cloverfield By Way of 80s B-Movies

Underwater, which opened this weekend in theaters and stars Kristin Stewart and Vincent Cassell, is a welcome throwback to a movie min-genre we haven't seen in thirty years: the underwater Alien imitator. After the 1977 release of Ridley Scott's Alien, after the exhaustion of outer-space homage to the film, writers turned their attention to that other frontier, the deep sea. And there were a lot of them, with 1989 bringing DeepStar Six, Leviathan, the MST3K favorite Lords of the Deep, not to mention James Cameron's genre-elevating turn The Abyss. And then the deep-sea Alien ripoff movie genre dried up.

But now with Underwater it comes roaring back as though no time has passed at all—William Eubank's film borrows its attitude and looks from Alien, right down to the curious choice of having its star run around in her underwear for most of the movie. It's slightly less cynical than Scott's movie—whereas there, the ragtag crew fell victim to a company that wanted to capture a dangerous animal for defense contract purposes, here the monsters are just indigenous to the place the company has chosen for its work. If you squint there's a moral there—the idea that if we weren't so thirsty for oil, we wouldn't have disturbed the monsters—but it's not the same as "hey hang, go collect an alien egg for us."

The one innovation here is that since the late 80s and now we've had the Cloverfield wave. These films—and I'd include 2007's The Mist, which came out just a year before the 2008 Cloverfield—have attempted to bring abstract, awe-inspiring Lovecraftian horror into coherent plots by presenting these unimaginable horrors as two things: drippy and big. Drippy, as creatures drizzle glops of monster slime and tiny creatures. Big, as in if you're looking up at what amounts to a Cthulhu AT-AT stomping on your house, it's pretty awesome. It would be a spoiler to explain how well Underwater fits into the Cloverfield wave, but this twist in the film represents the only innovative thing about the film.

Otherwise, it's another underwater Alien, like DeepStar Six and Leviathan before it. Like Lincoln said, you like this sort of thing, this is the kind of thing you will like.

The end, by the way, is a Titanic moment where you, I, and everyone but the cast can see a number of viable options that the cast are blind to. We can call it Titanic Blindness.

The main problem with Underwater is that sometimes it abandons claustrophobia and sinks deep into complete confusion. I mention that claustrophobia aspect because I can hear the director saying, "no no, it's supposed to be disorienting at times, to increase the tension." Got it. But the problem is that if the viewers can't understand what's actually going on, we quickly lose interest and the tension is lost. In Underwater, again and again, I found myself suddenly lost. How did she wind up on that platform? I didn't see her jump there. Is that guy being pulled straight up or straight down? Repeatedly, characters spout exposition in dialogue lost in a cacophony of sound effects and never repeated. Stewart, Cassell and the rest are working hard, but the film lets them down through confusing editing and sound-mixing. But I can run with it because I know what this is: not Alien but one of its imitators, and yes, I'm the kind that's here for that.

Recommended for my kind of people: B-Movie fans only.

Jason Henderson is the host of the Castle of Horror and Castle Talk Podcasts, the editor of the Castle of Horror Anthology series, and the author of the upcoming Quest for the Nautilus: Young Captain Nemo from Macmillan Children's Books.

About Jason Henderson

Jason Henderson, author of the Young Captain Nemo (Macmillan Children's) and Alex Van Helsing (HarperTeen) series, earned his BA from University of Dallas in 1993 and his JD from Catholic University of America, Columbus School of Law in Washington, D.C., in 1996. His popular podcasts “Castle Talk” and “Castle of Horror” feature interviews and discussion panels made up of best-selling writers and artists from all genres. Henderson lives in Colorado with his wife and two daughters.

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