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Underwater: A Better Breed of B-Movie

While “Underwater,” the weekend’s new sci-fi thriller, may stand on the shoulders of such giants as “The Abyss” or “Alien,” it wisely doesn’t take itself so seriously. This is pulpy, B-movie fun, and in a month routinely known for duds, “Underwater” is a breath of fresh air.

A crew of offshore drillers, miles under the ocean, find themselves in peril after a mysterious impact cripples their rig. As they scramble to escape, they slowly discover that whatever hit their ship has been lurking in the deep for a long time, and it’s not happy to see them.

In a movie like this, the characters are often reduced to a blurb per personality, and while I won’t say these characters leap off the screen, the cast portraying them makes me want to see them through to the end. We mainly follow Kristen Stewart, who’s well-cast as an anxious engineer determined to survive. She sometimes comes off flat in conversation, but when the movie relies on her nervous energy, it works. Other standouts include T.J. Miller as the joker with a plush rabbit and Vincent Cassel as the well-respected captain. Also starring, John Gallagher Jr., Jessica Henwick, Mamoudou Athie and Gunner Wright.

William Eubank, the film’s director, helmed 2014’s “The Signal,” a slow-burn mystery starring Brenton Thwaites as a young man kidnapped by a secret group of scientists. The film reminded me of an episode of “The Twilight Zone” or “The Outer Limits,” taking its time to reveal details by the smallest increments.

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Photo credit: Alan Markfield/ Twentieth Century Fox

“Underwater” almost takes the opposite approach. It hits the ground running, almost literally, as the movie immediately follows the opening credits with the rig being smashed by an unknown actor. From that moment, the tension is set, the heartstrings taut as Eubank wisely balances stressful action with pitch-black claustrophobia.

The halls are thin, rooms cramped. Rubble blocks off corridors, the resulting path just barely big enough for a person to wriggle through. One light tap of the glass causes a crack to double in size. Water drips dangerously close to exposed wire. Even the most safe rooms seem a little too small to comfortably stretch. At every turn, the movie takes the opportunity to make me feel like the walls are caving in, that certain death is one inch, one bad step away.

The movie’s scariest sequences involve the drillers walking on the ocean floor in pressure suits. Close-ups of the drillers’ faces give us the most information on what’s happening, as they and I can’t see more than two feet in front of our faces. This type of darkness is employed in the “47 Meters Down” series, but this ocean is cloudier, full of sand and debris. If I saw a shark coming in this movie, its teeth would likely already be gnawing through my helmet. However, given what’s in this movie, I think I’d have better luck with the shark.

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Kristen Stewart in “Underwater” | Photo credit: Alan Markfield/Twentieth Century Fox

The more I think about “Underwater,” the fonder my feelings toward it grow. I have to imagine Eubank’s background as a cinematographer served him well; I found myself snapping mental pictures of striking imagery, full of sharp shadows and radiant colors. Even in the quieter moments, I found my eye drawn by something, whether it be a Lovecraftian prop in the background, a skillfully operated camera move or a blink-and-you-miss-it piece of foreshadowing. I see the movie as a labor of love, inspired by art that would make many a geek grin. If you’re looking for a thrilling blast of disaster movie plus claustrophobic horror, you’ll have a good time.

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Featured image credit: Alan Markfield/ Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

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