“UNDERWATER” — 2 stars — Kristen Stewart, T.J. Miller, Jessica Henwick, Vincent Cassel, John Gallagher Jr., Mamoudou Athie, Gunner Wright; PG-13 (sci-fi action and terror, and brief strong language); in general release; running time: 95 minutes

“Underwater” is about what you’d expect from a sci-fi thriller with an early January release date. It’s got a decent premise, and a couple of good moments, but it’s not really ready for primetime.

Set in the relatively near future, “Underwater” follows a team of deep-sea drillers that has to escape the depths after a mysterious accident cripples their station. Though set underwater, William Eubank’s film feels like a loose mashup of various outer space thrillers, like “Gravity” and especially “Alien.”

In this case, the empowered female Ripley-like protagonist is Norah (Kristen Stewart), an engineer who is already wrestling with the psychological effects of deep-sea life when a catastrophic accident destroys half of her drilling station. In the immediate aftermath, Norah finds her way through the wreckage to eventually team up with a handful of other survivors, including the station’s captain (Vincent Cassel).

No one is able to figure out quite what is going on — from the inside it felt like an earthquake hit the station — and as they check off their remaining options for escape, their chances fade quickly. Eventually, they decide to descend to the ocean floor in diving suits, then cross the floor to a remote rig called the Roebuck, which will presumably take them to the surface.

It isn’t long into their journey before Norah and co. realize that there is more than damaged equipment looming between them and safety. When they find a strange eel-like creature feeding on the corpse of one of their fellow drillers, they get a hint at the larger dangers awaiting them.

Kristen Stewart, left, and Vincent Cassel in a scene from the film “Underwater.” | Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

For the most part, “Underwater” falls into a routine monster movie formula, and the audience plays the standard guessing game to figure out which character is going to get picked off next. As is often the case with these kinds of movies, a little more character development would have made things more interesting, but there are bigger flaws in play.

The first is actually tied to one of the film’s strengths. The opaque deep-sea depths and the drill station wreckage give “Underwater” a claustrophobic feel, but it’s also very hard to follow what is going on through many scenes. This would be more forgivable if the sea monsters made for more of a persistent threat, but “Underwater’s” biggest flaw is that it ignores its antagonists for such long stretches that the film’s tension and conflict just waste away.

Combined with some dumbed-down dialogue that messes with the film’s tone, plus enough sketchy plotting to cause confusion, the myriad flaws prove too much for “Underwater” to overcome. The straightforward premise has some potential, and there are some nice visuals in a few spots, but overall Eubank’s film is one of those movies where the nods to its predecessors just reinforce its own derivative inferiority. 

On a content level, the hard-to-see visuals numb the violence and gore down to a PG-13 level, and in the performance department, Stewart gives an honest effort. It’s clear that Eubank is trying to set her up as a deep-sea Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver’s character in the “Alien” movies). In addition to her take-charge attitude, Stewart spends most of the entire movie either in her underwear or in high-tech diving suits that evoke Weaver’s most iconic scenes.

At best, “Underwater” is a marginal excuse to get out of the house in January, but then only if you’ve already tired of the better options at the multiplex. “Underwater” is just not scary enough to be a horror movie, or interesting enough to be a bona fide sci-fi thriller. There was definitely some potential here, but Eubank just can’t bring it to the surface.


Rating explained: “Underwater” is rated PG-13 for frightening and intense scenes of action and violence, some scattered profanity (including a single use of the F-word), and enough underwear time for various characters to make you notice.