If you can’t beat them, join them. Ridley Scott’s Alien set a new benchmark for spacey creature-feature horror movies and no imitator has recaptured the impact of that very seminal film. I mean, we’ve seen it all before, right? And aside from the obvious monetary gain, why bother trying to do what has already been done so many times? The answer is simple: We love the formula.
‘Formula’ is underrated and it is all too often used as critical leverage. But as far as I’m concerned, there is no argument to be made against formulaic cinema. When a template provides a solid foundation, it’s logical to build upon it, and when we recognise something we love done a little differently, we ought to celebrate its arrival.
Underwater is the latest Alien-inspired sci-fi horror, although this one brings the formula back to Earth and plunges it to the Ocean’s depths. Set on a deep sea mining rig at the bottom of the Mariana Trench (the deepest point of the ocean), the film begins with an Earthquake that causes severe structural damage to the rig, killing most of its workers. Unable to contact the surface, the surviving crew must cross the ocean floor on foot – in pitch darkness, under severe ocean pressure – to the main part of the facility holding escape pods. Of course, as the formula would dictate, the Earthquake has awoken something alien and prehistoric, and our intrepid crew must also outsmart hordes of vicious crustacean-esque anthropoid monsters.
Kristen Stewart stars as Norah Price, a mechanical engineer who must combine smarts with captain Lucien (Vincent Cassel) and the remaining survivors – including T.J. Miller, Jessica Henwick, Mamoudou Athie, Gunner Wright and John Gallagher Jr. – to navigate the twisted debris-laden sea floor while encased in bulky high-tech mecha sea-suits.
Stewart takes charge and leads the film so well, assuming the heroine role (which pays strong homage to Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley from Alien) with intelligence and bravado. I admit to have held a personal aversion to Stewart’s otherwise prosaic mannerisms and have been unable to connect with most of her characters up until this point. And so it came as a relief that I was able to invest in her dilemma as much as I did. Cassel is also a valuable asset to the film, his reputation and prestige lending a huge amount of credibility to what is essentially a monster movie. He is great and plays against type, which cannot be said for T.J. Miller, who returns to the screen following a temporary exile from Hollywood with the same smart-ass persona, lending comedy where it isn’t always needed.
With that said, Underwater is tonnes of fun and is precisely what we should expect from the genre. With perfect control, director William Eubank (The Signal) delivers a trim and taut horror movie that bares no fat and wastes no time in getting to the point. As well as Alien, he has taken cues from a variety of influences, most notably Deep Rising and Pitch Black, and exploits every trope to maximum effect. Make no mistake: his movie is genuinely scary and every opportunity is taken to throw horror as the screen.
If hamburgers were simply hamburgers, we wouldn’t have countless outlets providing countless varieties, would we? The same goes for cinema, and while Alien might be the juiciest burger of them all, that doesn’t mean that others aren’t also delicious. Underwater is a bang-for-buck fright film with a crazy assortment of scares. It ought to be a crowd pleaser.
SCREEN REALM SCORE: ★★★★☆
‘Underwater’ opened in Australian cinemas on January 23.