Reel Talk

Underwater and the Horror of Corporate Disaster

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As someone who obsessively watches movies, often just so that I’d have something to talk about on their dumb blog, January can be a rough month. January is often the worst month for movies, usually dominated by the slew of awards-bait films that were released at the tail end of the year, often just on the coasts, and otherwise generally being relegated as a dumping place for massive mistakes. I guess the idea is that studios make movies, realize that they don’t exactly have a winner on their hands, and decide to release it in January when pickings are slim and they have a slightly better chance to drum up ticket sales, what with there being limited options. So, I’m usually pretty hesitant to go into films that are released in January, especially horror movies. Because those ones just reek of being originally intended to be released in the fall, but were too bad to be sent out around Halloween. So, when I heard that January would be getting a weird sci-fi horror movie about deep-sea minors being attacked by fish-men that was shot in 2017 and held for almost three years, I wasn’t expecting great things. But, shockingly, I started to hear some pretty solid word of mouth, and figured that I could just deal with that compulsive need to see new things in the theater by checking out this weird little relic. And, it’s pretty damn fun!

The story follows a mechanical engineer named Norah Price who lives and works on a deep-see mining facility, sitting in the Mariana Trench. However, one night while getting ready to sleep, the facility around her starts to rapidly decompress, failing to the massive pressures of the ocean. She manages to escape the part of the facility being destroyed, along with a man named Rodrigo, and get to a more safe section that is sealed off from the decompression. They then make their way through the ruined facility, finding another scientist named Paul along the way as they crawl through wreckage to reach the escape pods so they can flee before the rest of the facility implodes. But, when they get to the escape pods they finds that they’ve all already been launched, with only a few stragglers left behind. We have Captain Lucien the leader of the facility, a biologist named Emily, and an engineer named Liam, and Lucien tells them that things are incredibly dire, and that the only way to survive is to make their way to the main drill facility, which will have escape pods as well. But, that will require them to suit up and walk across the floor of the ocean to get to the drill facility. So, they suit up and begin making their way down to the sea-floor, where they almost immediately lose Rodrigo thanks to a faulty helmet which fails to keep in the pressure, causing him to implode.

It’s at this point that they also find an abandoned escape pod, along with some sort of creature eating the corpse inside. They realize that there’s some unknown special of humanoid fish in the water, and they quickly make it to another underwater facility. Along the way Liam’s suit is damaged, knocking him unconscious, and Paul is attacked and killed by one of the fish-people. They attempt to continue their journey, dragging Liam, when they’re attacked by more fish-people. Chaos ensues, and Norah and Lucien are separated from Emily and Liam, attacked by fish people until Lucien sacrifices himself. Norah makes it to another facility and gets a new suit, before finding Emily and Liam again. They continue towards the main drill, when they find a massive fish-creature lurking around the drill, covered in the smaller fish-creatures. They fight their way inside, and end up finding that there’s only two functioning pods left. So, Norah sends Emily and Liam up to safety, and stays behind in order to trigger a melt-down in the drill’s power supply, setting off an explosion that destroys the facility, along with the massive fish-monster. We’re then left with the knowledge that Liam and Emily survived, and that the company that owned the mine ignored what happened and get back to work continuing to drill in the same area, fish-monsters be damned.

 

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Underwater is not a perfect movie. I’ve seen a lot of people say that it feels very reminiscent of Ridley Scott’s Alien, and I think the comparison is pretty impossible to avoid. And, obviously, it’s pretty damn hard to stand up against Alien, one of the most effective horror movies ever made. But, I really do think that Underwater manages to move out of the shadow of Alien, at least a bit, and become its own thing. At its core, it’s a pretty standard Creature Feature, a fun little sci-fi romp featuring some moderately like able characters put in an insanely stress-inducing situation while being picked off one by one from some terrible monstrosity that can’t be bargained or reasoned with. That’s a pretty solid premise that has worked for countless other movies, and works well for this one too. The acting is generally pretty compelling, the cinematography is appropriately claustrophobic and murky helping put us in the baffled shoes of these characters, and the design of the fish-monsters are pretty solid and rarely blatantly shown, even if it all does get a tad Cthulu at times. But, at the end of the day it’s a fun little sci-fi flick that is perhaps more well-made than it needed to be, an original film that while certainly indebted to something that came before it strives to become its own thing, and ended up being a fun time in the theater, making it that much sadder that it’s completely bombing with audiences.

There are a lot of reasons that you can compare this film with Alien. The horrifying monsters living in a location where humanity can’t survive, the relatively blue-collar protagonists surrounded by a technological marvel, and a strong female protagonist who ends up running around in her underwear for a shocking amount of the film certainly included. But, another thing that the film seems to lend from Alien, and that keeps it right at home here in 2020, is a general disgust with corporations. These aren’t kindly scientists trying to uncover the mysteries of the ocean, they’re working for a massive conglomerate that seemingly knew about these strange creatures, and the fact that their drilling was upsetting them, and still sent people down to the most inhospitable place on the planet to get their resources. This entire mining facility looks like it’s falling apart, full of corporate propaganda and shoddy systems that are continuously failing. And, by the end of the film we learn that the corporation got confirmation of the existence of a goddamn Cthulu, and decided they were just going to sweep that under the rug and send more suckers down there, to their almost certain demise. Which, ends up feeling like the most realistic aspect of the film.

 

Underwater was written by Brian Duffield and Adam Cozad, directed by William Eubank, and released by 20th Century Fox, 2020.

 

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