Kristen Stewart is having a rough time at the box office. Her latest effort in her return to the mainstream, Underwater, tanked over the weekend (no pun intended). It’s not like anyone expected box office fireworks in January, but Stewart, even spending the better part of the 2010s out of mainstream American cinema, is a big-name movie star, and she cannot catch a break with audiences. First Charlie’s Angels is a miss, then Seberg fails to move the award season needle, and now Underwater bombs, too. Of course, Underwater is not a particularly good movie, so I’m not surprised it failed to find an audience.
That said, Underwater isn’t especially bad, either. It’s a thoroughly mediocre survival thriller that borrows heavily from Alien (it’s basically just Alien but in the ocean instead of space). Stewart stars as Nora, one of a small band of survivors after an apparent earthquake on the ocean floor destroys their deep-sea mining site. All of the escape pods are damaged, of course, so the survivors must hike across the sea floor to a different part of the mining site in hopes of finding working escape pods. Naturally, because this is an Alien rip-off, there is Something Out There. To the credit of director William Eubank (The Signal), Underwater does pretty well with the concept of the mysterious sea creatures, largely erring on the side of “don’t show the shark”, which makes the things scarier.
A huge problem with Underwater, though, is that you can’t see ANYTHING for long stretches of the movie. I understand that the sea floor is an impenetrable blackness not meant for man and that the Hadalpelagic zone is home to countless hellish specimens and that the water is teeming with sediment and visibility is limited. But this is a movie. It is a visual medium. Solve for x and figure out a way to represent the ocean trenches while also ensuring the audience can see what the f-ck is happening without squinting for ninety whole minutes. A specific sequence predicated on low visibility is one thing, but I walked out of Underwater with a headache from the eye strain.
Another issue for the movie is TJ Miller, who plays another of the survivors. As you might recall, Miller was accused of sexual assault, and then he called in a fake bomb threat because a lady on a train made him mad. Underwater is the last of his roles booked before the sh-t hit the fan in late 2017. He plays Paul, a generic asshole and the kind of character Ryan Reynolds can make work based on charisma, but Miller has no charisma, so he’s just intolerable until the moment he dies, which is not soon enough, frankly. There really is no good reason for Paul to be so annoying except that screenwriters Brian Duffield and Adam Cozad thought they needed a wisecracking kook for some reason. Proof Underwater does not need the comic relief: Once Paul is gone from the movie, you do not miss his “jokes” at all. He was not effectively relieving tension; the movie is the same amount of tense with and without him.
Underwater does work some of the time, though, mostly thanks to Stewart and Jessica Henwick (Iron Fist), both of whom give fine performances. They have an effective rapport, and both make the most of the spare storytelling, creating characters that mostly feel like real people. Underwater is intermittently entertaining and a decent enough B-level thriller. It would be nice if more of it is visible, but the murky visuals do pay off when the final boss shows up at the end. Underwater is not breaking new ground, but it pays off its modest ambitions well enough. You might enjoy squinting at it on a plane someday.
Attached: Kristen Stewart at LAX and at an Underwater special screening last week.