In The Sacred Wood, T.S. Eliot wrote, “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least different.”
You see the line pop up in the film world quite a bit. It’s most often used to praise or justify the hyper-referential styles of people like Quentin Tarantino, your good poets—but if you’ve ever wondered what the opposite side of that coin looks like, Underwater is a trip to the Mint.
The film wastes no time throwing hell at its characters. After a brief locker-room intro to engineer Norah (Kristen Stewart)—who immediately proves her virtue by saving a spider from a sink—her deep-sea drilling rig begins to implode. Norah hauls ass to find a way topside, picking up some buddies from the rubble along the way. But there’s something lurking in them there waters, and reaching the surface won’t be easy.
What’s weird is I didn’t hate Underwater from the outset. To its credit, there are a couple fun set pieces, Vincent Cassel is a beaut as always, and the premise—a hobbled crew finding monsters at the bottom of the ocean—has boatloads of potential.
The picture’s number-one problem? Underwater is basically a deep-sea Alien ripoff, something Stuart Heritage of the Guardian called months ago in the only good trailer review ever. And while movies are elevator-pitched as “Alien—but underwater” or “ Point Break meets Days of Thunder” all the time, the similarities here are beyond heavy-handed. When the Alien realization dawns on you, the entertainment value fades.
Weylan-Yutani-esque evil corporation? Check. Chestburster-type precursor to the Big Bad? Check. A wannabe Ripley running around in her tiny underwear? Check. The only time Underwater deviates from the first Alien’s roadmap is when it’s pulling from James Cameron or—spoiler alert—H.P. Lovecraft. That’s right, Underwater’s ultimate reveal is that the merman Xenomorph stand-in that’s been picking off the crew one by one is in fact an underling of what’s implied to be Cthulhu, the ol’ octopus dragon god from Lovecraftian horror yarns... which of course, like Ripley, Norah tries to blow up via self-destruct sequence.
So that brings us back to T.S. Eliot. It’s possible Underwater’s references could have played as homage were they not so on the nose. Instead, we’re inundated with imitation, and none of it’s for the better. Maybe with a stronger overall execution we could overlook the blatant yoinking; however, there’s a lot of fat to be trimmed here, so much standing around, and the movie is only an hour and a half long. Even worse, I’m left wanting for an “Alien meets Cthulhu” movie that I never knew I needed. Sadly, Underwater’s underperformance will likely table any chance of that happening.
I’m glad Hollywood is starting to explore the ocean depths again after oh so many space movies, but Underwater is a subpar offering. Skip the simulacrum and the ticket price and just stream Alien, Aliens, and The Abyss on HBO.
directed by William Eubank
area theaters, now playing