Before technology took over the movies, a cruddy sci-fi action thriller often looked just as bad as it played. No longer. “Underwater,” a deep-sea knockoff of “Alien” set on a corporate research rig seven miles beneath the surface of the ocean, has been made with the kind of lavish atmospheric precision that, 30 years ago, you’d have been hard-pressed to find outside a movie directed by James Cameron. Now, though, even a dregs-of-January throwaway will get slathered in the kind of grand-scale murk and logistical explosiveness that’s meant to excite us, even if the story it’s telling is rudderless junk.
Well, guess what? It doesn’t excite us. “Underwater” is a stupefying entertainment in which every claustrophobic space and apocalyptic crash of water registers as a slick visual trigger, yet it’s all built on top of a dramatic void. It’s boredom in Sensurround.
The film opens with its grabbiest visual effect, which is Kristen Stewart’s hair. It’s been dyed a whiter shade of blonde and cropped so prison-camp short that it’s beyond anything that pretends to look fetching; but that’s what’s supposed to make it cool. Stewart plays Norah, a mechanical engineer who is one of a team of researchers living in an undersea station that consists of long modular passageways that appear as flimsy as an oversize doll’s house. Early on, when water starts crashing through the walls in the wave equivalent of bullet-time, turning the place into a science-lab Titanic that’s already sunk, we experience every jolt and surge, the joints of the structure creaking with a pressure so intense it sounds otherworldly (and, in fact, is). The scale of destruction is undeniably impressive, yet the film already feels waterlogged.
Norah, teaming up with Rodrigo (Mamoudou Athie), escapes the deluge, and they join forces with half a dozen coworkers from the collapsing facility, all under the leadership of the mission’s captain, played by the Picasso-eyed French character actor Vincent Cassel, who like everyone else in the film has a barely written role, so that even his surly charisma is wasted. The captain comes up with a Hail Mary plan: They will walk along the bottom of the ocean to reach the project’s Roebuck drill station, where they can take shelter and get to the surface. The plan, as laid out, holds very little water, dramatically or as a plausible survival option — it’s just an excuse to get everyone to put on deep-sea diving suits as chunky as refrigerators, and to kill time until the monsters show up.
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The days when acting in a film like “Underwater” could dim your star belong to the past. Yet watching it, you still think: What’s an actress as classy as Kristen Stewart doing in a potboiler like this? Yes, it’s important to demonstrate you’ve got the right commercial attitude, but when you take on the lead in a movie so listlessly derivative, it tends to be a lose-lose situation, creatively and at the box office. In “Underwater,” Stewart locks herself in terse anxiety mode and never deviates from it. She’s an actress who needs a good script to tap her verbal sharpness, but it’s clear that someone convinced her that “Underwater” would give her the chance to be “just like” Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley (right down to the anti-movie-star coif). But when you’re “just like” a character who’s that iconic, you’re really nowhere at all.
A scene with a darting pink undersea alien fetus is truly unfortunate. Does the film really want to be this much of a carbon copy of “Alien,” given that it’s a thousand times less scary? At the same time, the director, William Eubank, seems to be taking cues from “The Meg,” going for the “size matters” school of monster-jawed menace. The main creature in “Underwater” suggests a jellyfish the size of a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon, with rows of teeth that are like something out of “The Nun.” It’s a beast that looks like it could eat an entire underwater station in one bite, even as it’s taking nibbles out of a talented actress’s career.