Updated: Apr 26, 2020
Brian Duffield is a grade-A screenwriter. I would personally rank his scripts up there with Shane Black; the way he effortlessly writes in a tone that makes me see the film is something I aspire to every time I put pen to paper. That being said, he’s not had a great critical career. After being hired to write the second Divergent film, Insurgent (2015) (remember when post apocalyptic YA novels were the only movies in cinemas?), his western drama script, Jane Got a Gun (2015), was bought and rewritten to less than critical fanfare. Then The Babysitter (2017), one of my favourite films, was released directly to Netflix and also, wasn’t a critical darling (but who the hell listens to critics, am I right? Please keep reading.)
Underwater, is a script that has been sitting on my shelf, (despite the fact that I refused to read it until this movie came out), and is also the very last film to be released under the “20th Century Fox” banner. Looking like one part Alien (1979), two parts Pitch Black (2000), and starring a combo of both main characters from Tank Girl (1995), I’ve been waiting three years for this one.
Pictured: either Kristen Stewart in Underwater, or an incredibly topical reference
A more simple story it couldn’t be. And a simple story, doesn’t need much set up. The set up plays the Godzilla (2014) game, with the opening credits appearing over news clippings telling you why people are underwater and what the station is for. However, unlike Godzilla (2014), as soon as those credits finish, it kicks you in the face and the WHOLE PLACE IMPLODES!
For a movie that begins so suddenly, it surprisingly never felt rushed. It felt perfectly paced, almost predictably so, but never to the point that I felt bored. It reminded me of The Martian in that way; the moment it seems like everything is okay, you know something is about to go down, and even though I’ve clenched my buttocks in preparation, it’s still a shock.
It’s interesting how it simultaneously subverts some expectations and tropes, yet still adheres to others (huge spoiler: the black guy dies first). There are a few things in the film that I think could be considered plot conveniences and come out of nowhere, but the movie does a good job of setting these things up, it just seems to fail to remind you. The thing that saves the day in the end is set up VERY early as a threat in the film, but it’s not mentioned again until it’s actually needed.
On top of all of this, one of the characters mentions that she has a pet corgi waiting for her. But who’s looking after her corgi? Her partner is also on this drill station with her, and the very first line of the film is about being down there for months. I had to find a sitter to look after my pet corgi for just one week, and it was one of the hardest things I ever had to do. Looking him in the eyes right before I walked away and didn’t come back for six days? He was distraught! This character is a terrible person for leaving that corgi behind. Very upsetting.
With so much Marvel and Star Wars and even in some years, Star Trek, it takes a lot for a sci-fi film to have its own look. Underwater's production design pays homage to Alien, with a grungy and damp retro-tech feel, but it’s the cinematography that really gives it a unique look. I’m biased; I am a big fan of wide angle lenses. However, I think the frenetic moments are captured in an impactful way, through the use of a wide angle lens. Every close-up feels uncomfortably claustrophobic, and the underwater point of view shots make you really feel like there’s simultaneously nothing and everything out to get you all at once. If you’re a fan of tech, it’s really exciting to research how they achieved the deep ocean floor look.
The visual effects were great and the designs of the monsters were disturbing. The script describes them as "ghosts", and I can see that they took that to heart. There is one scene in particular where they are forced to walk through a mass of these ghosts and it’s deeply unnerving.
The sound design is almost too realistic sometimes, with dialogue being muffled and hard to hear, but one could say it enhances the tension justifiably. Also… I mean, they are underwater. So I guess that makes sense? On the other hand, some of the people I watched it with missed pretty big moments that I caught, and I missed pretty big moments they caught, so maybe dialogue supervisor, Jim Brookshire, was just messing with us?
I’m really keen to read this script to see how similar the themes of the film are. I think the way Kristen Stewart's Norah grows in the film says one thing, but then I remember another pretty important conversation the characters have, and feel like it may be saying something completely different. I still think the end of her arc is satisfying overall, but what it meant in the larger message? Maybe a little messed up?
There’s also the classic “we blanked too far” theme that is a standard with science fiction. It’s our hubris as humans to play God.
Jurassic Park is: “we dinosaured too far”.
The Fly is: “we teleported too far”.
The Terminator is: “we robotted too far”.
Being based on a deep sea mining station that causes an earthquake and subsequent monsters being unleashed, I don’t think it needs to be said that “we underwater drilled too far” is an overarching theme. It’s a given, surely? Yet, for some reason, there’s an entire scene dedicated to one of the characters looking worryingly at nothing, stating, “oh no, we did this. We underwater-drilled too far, #StopAdani”. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for hashtag Stop Adani, but I feel like it’s already implied, and you don’t have to shove it down our throats. Everyone has seen Fern Gully and Avatar; we get it.
Sci-fi horror is one of my favourite sub-genres. Maybe this is just because the last sci-fi horror I watched was the incredibly disappointing and complicatingly stupid Life (2017), but Underwater had me hooked. I wasn’t as tense as I was in something like 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016), but the movie never let up in the action, and I was along for the ride.
As an original script with no pre-established IP, it was really disappointing (but unsurprising) to see the cinema I saw this in was completely empty. Me and my friends had obviously annoyed the cinema staff by making them stay until midnight. So many people say, “ugh, there’s nothing but sequels and remakes” and then when an original movie comes out, they stay home because they’re waiting for the Sonic the Hedgehog movie.
It’s times like this I really wish The Cloverfield Paradox (2018) didn’t desperately try to connect itself to what was clearly an original spec script, and a movie that came out twelve years ago.
10 Cloverfield Lane (2016) was basically an amazingly tense sci-fi thriller that people wouldn’t go see (as proven by Underwater), so they slapped a Cloverfield title on it, making it an anthology series that could sell original sci-fi films, like a feature length Black Mirror franchise. It should have been this! Underwater could have been a great addition to that franchise, and then maybe, people who are upset about all these sequels and remakes would go see it.
I made myself depressed.
Anyway, yeah, Pitch Black (2000) was better, but this was still better than Riddick (2013), so I don’t think the addition of Vin Diesel would make this any better. I had a lot of fun, and now I’m gonna watch Pitch Black (2000) again, so double win!