Underwater: A Serviceable Creature Feature
In theory, replicating the Alien formula should be easy. Ridley Scott’s 1979 film is an exercise in escalating dread, using atmospherics, controlled pacing, and measured doses of the title creature to ratchet up the tension until it all comes to a head — it’s executed to perfection, but the individual components are striking in their relative simplicity. Despite this, there has been seemingly more success in the intervening years for those films choosing to follow the more bombastic path laid out by James Cameron’s follow-up Aliens, a movie bigger than its predecessor in almost every way — including in the sheer amount of monsters as alluded to by the title — and one that arguably created the template for the modern sci-fi actioner. In Underwater, director William Eubank is clearly attempting to draw more from Scott than from Cameron, but in the process shows that making Alien (But In The Ocean) might be easier said than done. The pieces are there: Kristen Stewart manages to channel Sigourney Weaver while putting her personal spin on the Ripley archetype. The supporting cast are all given their share of idiosyncrasies that elevate them beyond the standard futuristic blue-collar worker (some of these quirks are stranger than others — T.J. Miller, playing the comic relief, has a borderline disconcerting obsession with Alice in Wonderland). The production design and underwater setting are appropriately eerie and the monsters of the deep are often genuinely frightening. All in all, Underwater is enjoyable enough — for this writer, at least, the floor of Alien in the Ocean as a concept is fairly high, and the film for the most part does what you have to believe it set out to do. But it begs the question: why aren’t these Alien descendants better than just merely enjoyable? Underwater isn’t the first to try and not completely succeed — just a couple years ago we had Life, featuring a star-studded cast and a premise even more similar to Scott’s classic, which I found very fun but little more. Perhaps it’s not fair to a film like Underwater to compare it to Alien; perhaps we should allow it to stand on its own two feet and be judged on its own merits. I’m sympathetic to this argument, and to the idea that we should consider a film primarily for what it is, not for what we think it should be. But films also don’t exist in a vacuum, especially in the age of streaming, where an expanse of film history is at your fingertips. The art of film is constantly in conversation with its past and its future: the ability of today’s best filmmakers to create new and exciting works is often correlated with their understanding of what came before. When a film is as indebted to another as Underwater is to Alien, a critical comparison doesn’t just feel fair — it feels almost necessary. So, with that, why doesn’t Underwater fully work? In the end, it comes down — in a wry coincidence, given the subject matter — to the film’s refusal to let itself breathe. The true magic of Alien lies in how languid it is, especially in the first half, with Scott slowly letting the audience grow accustomed to the characters, their relationships, and the monotony of life on their deep-space commercial freighter. Underwater takes the polar opposite approach, throwing the crew of its deep-sea drilling rig into a crisis situation within mere minutes. There’s something to be said for getting right to the action, and in a different film it could have been a cause for celebration, but here the lack of patience leads the movie to suffer, particularly in regards to spatial awareness and character development, the latter of which is relegated to lines that feel more or less shoehorned in to justify subsequent plot decisions. When all is said and done, Underwater is perfectly competent and fairly fun, which is maybe all we can ask for in an early January studio release. But if the next group of Alien clones have greater ambitions than mere competence, the decision-makers would be well advised to watch Alien again and think carefully about why it continues to endure over four decades later.