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Underwater

Year: 2020
Production Co: Chernin Entertainment
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Director: William Eubank
Producer: Peter Chernin
Writer: Brian Duffield/Adam Cozad
Cast: Kristen Stewart, TJ Miller, Vincent Cassel, John Gallagher Jr, Jessica Henwick

I wondered when this film was released why it sank like a stone, but have read since that it was a victim of the handover when Disney bought Fox, a handful of properties the studio was obliged to release but wasn't terribly interested in, having inherited them with the purchase rather than make them itself.

And it's a shame, because while the criticisms you've read about how derivative it is of other (much better) movies are mostly true, it's one of the most expertly done versions of what this story could possibly be and it's great fun.

In fact, writers Brian Duffield and Adam Cozad and/or director William Eubank don't even bother hiding the influence of other classics, trumpeting them proudly from the rooftops. If the premise alone of a group of blue collar workers cut off from humanity in an extreme environment while pursued by otherworldly creatures doesn't remind you enough of Alien, Underwater even has its Final Girl desperately preparing her last stand destiny in only her underwear.

We meet Norah (Kristen Stewart), a mechanical engineer trying to unwind in an industrial-style bathroom in a mining station at the bottom of the Mariana Trench after a work shift. She has a tender moment with a daddy longlegs trying to crawl out of a sink, amazed that such a creature could find its way seven miles below the surface of the ocean, and then we're thrown into the action.

When she emerges into the corridor Norah is horrified to see water dripping from the ceiling. She's barely had time to scream 'breach!' when the entire station implodes upon its hundreds of staff, and the race is on to try and make it through the wreckage to escape pods or raise the surface to call for a rescue.

As Norah fights her way through crushed corridors and crawlspaces strewn with rubble she meets up with other survivors – the stoic station captain Lucien (Vincent Cassell) and other workers Rodrigo (Mamoudou Athie), Paul (TJ Miller), Liam (John Gallagher) and Emily (Jessica Henwick).

But, just like in other oft-trod territory, the enormous drilling operation has awakened something, and when the crew reach barriers to the deep ocean outside or have to don protective suits to venture beyond the ruined structures, something is out there with them.

Their numbers dwindle with every new set piece, and every one of them is narratively inventive and visually distinct enough from the last to make a genuine impact. Norah having to tiptoe her way through hordes of monsters hanging – asleep – from the ceiling above her is particularly nerve-sawing.

The pacing is near-perfect, with plenty of thrills and scares and with dramatic, tender and well-acted moments that know exactly when to stop and return the proceedings to action, no single scene or dramatic motif outstaying its welcome. Even the score evokes a great sci-fi mood, making it all feel even more sweeping and full of epic scope.

Every time the survivors reach a new part of the mining complex it's signalled with a camera move that gradually reveals the facility along with a dramatic flourish in the score and a stark, ultra-modern typography in the title card announcing where you are, and the result is gooseflesh-inducing and quite beautiful.

If you read the negative reviews they're all kind of right – it's not at all original. But it's just such an expertly constructed thrill ride. There's a perfect helping of embellishment, great visuals, enough soul in the performances to make it at-times genuinely lovely, but amid all that it never forgets the tropes of the genre (in a kind of cherry on top, we even learn that the company behind the drilling operation know about previous deep sea attacks but covered them up, considering their crews expendable. Ms Yutani, call on line two...)

There are apparently a lot of nods to Alice in Wonderland which I didn't quite spot but to cement Eubank's credentials as a horror geek, he's said since it was released he was indeed referencing a classic monster mythology the creatures' forms will remind you of.

Amid the critical and box office failure, I feel the most sorry for Stewart. After the empty bauble of Twilight she parleyed her clout into a series of very interesting roles in very offbeat fare and proved herself a very credible actress. At some point recently it looks like she's decided to give big blockbusters another crack for the fun of it (or money) but her two most recent returns to more commercial fare – Elizabeth Banks' Charlie's Angels reboot and this movie – have both tanked.

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