You know that scene in “Fast & Furious 8” when Dom, vacationing in Cuba, is forced into racing his nephew’s clapped out motor against the local street racing kingpin? Before the race, they strip that jalopy of every ounce of unnecessary weight, stripping it down to the bare essentials creating a lean, efficient racing machine. It’s that exact approach to storytelling that gives “Underwater” its relentless, muscular drive, propelling its ragtag band of survivors through the terrors of the deep.
When a drilling operation at the very bottom of the Marianas Trench suffers catastrophic damage from an earthquake, the survivors face a desperate race against time to reach the evacuation pods. But the deadly pressure and dwindling oxygen supplies aren’t the only threats to deal with – there’s something else lurking in the depths, released by the earthquake and looking for prey.
There’s a refreshing economy and efficiency to the storytelling in “Underwater” – not a moment is wasted or frittered away. The opening credits themselves are used to fill in the backstory of how our intrepid band of deep-sea miners came to be at the very bottom of the ocean in the first place and its mere moments into the film proper before disaster strikes and a crop-headed Kristen Stewart is running for her life through the rapidly collapsing corridors of the underwater base. From there, it’s a breathlessly kinetic scramble to the control room, picking up a few survivors along the way before the arduous trek across the ocean floor to escape.
Stewart turns in a great lead performance, affirming her status as one of the best actresses of her generation and evoking memories of Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley without ever feeling derivative. The movie’s small cast features the usual assortment of disaster movie stereotypes, including T J Miller as the character you hope will be the next one to die right up until he is. Vincent Cassel adds some gravitas to proceedings but there’s not much time devoted to fleshing out the characters or their backstories as the film muscles through compelling set piece after set piece, ramping up the tension and thrills with each encounter with the monsters which dwell in the Challenger Deep.
The production design and effects are superb, and the creature design even better with a smart script which has its priorities straight. There hasn’t been an underwater horror movie this good since the good old days of “Deep Star Six” and “Leviathan”, but “Underwater” is better than both of them. It has no pretensions other than to be a rollercoaster ride from start to finish and in that modest aim, it succeeds brilliantly. This is cinema as a theme park ride and it’s glorious.