Though a box-office bomb, “Underwater” is an incredibly entertaining film that isn’t shy about what it is: a pulpy homage to Lovecraft.
New Year’s Eve marked the end of a decade. Like any before it, the 2010s were pivotal, extraordinary, terrible, and amazing all rolled into one. While one can argue about the previous decade’s politics, economy, and what the best meme was, one thing is for certain: In terms of filmmaking, humanity’s nailed it.
The last three years, more than ever, have been an amazing period for movies, studio and indie alike. So, when I saw that Underwater (2020) would be one of the first studio horror releases of the new decade, I braced myself for a messy, incoherent film that would be as boring as it would be unintelligible.
Imagine my surprise when it turned out to be good. Really good.
Underwater, starring Kristen Stewart and directed by William Eubank, is a horror film about a drilling team that struggles to make it off the ocean floor alive. It appears that they, on behalf of some soulless corporation, have unknowingly unleashed, honest-to-the-Old Gods themselves, the Great Old One Cthulhu and his aquatic worshipers, The Deep Ones. To say I was in shock when all of this happened on screen is an understatement.
Before going any further, let me get something out of the way for the Lovecraft people.
If you’re a diehard cosmic horror fan, such as I, you really fall into one of two camps.
First, you have your diehard lit fans: individuals who uphold the virtues of Lovecraft and friends’ writing as much as possible. They like insanity, they like human-centric stories, and they like subtlety. Removing or missing things that are brought up directly by Lovecraft and subsequent cosmic horror authors tend to upset them. Adding things that don’t mesh with these above ideas also doesn’t tend to go over well.
On the opposite end, you have who I like to call “the pulp fans”. Pulp fans also enjoy everything the diehard lit fans like, but with a caveat: it has to be entertaining. To the pulp fans, what they’re watching, reading, or listening to has to be entertaining, first and foremost. If that means working around or disregarding Lovecraft’s precious lore, then so be it. They’d rather watch something they genuinely enjoy than force themselves to like something because they like Lovecraft.
Like any two online groups, both sides tend to poke fun at one another. I’ve seen diehard lit fans say that pulp fans are too stupid to understand cosmic horror or that they just want an action movie. I’ve seen pulp fans call diehard lit fans pretentious, in denial about the more boring aspects of Lovecraft’s writing. It goes both ways. Which camp am I in? I like to say I’m in the middle…but so does everyone.
Why am I talking about this?
If you fall into the former category – the diehard lit fan – then it’s possible you won’t enjoy Underwater.
Underwater is a studio film made to appeal to as wide an audience as possible, through and through. There are explosions, jump scares, and TJ Miller. That’s just the nature of the business. Because of this middle-of-the-road, general audience approach to its story and execution, fans of the literature will probably think the movie leaves them behind, which is understandable.
Despite being what director William Eubank describes as, “…a secret Lovecraft love story, where you get to see Cthulhu briefly at the end,” Underwater plays itself a little too conventionally. Rather than dealing with the psychological problems of being seven miles underwater and hunted by Deep Ones, we get milquetoast character drama. Instead of Kristen Stewart actually going to R’yleh, the sunken cyclopean city where Cthulhu lies dreaming, and ramping up the weird, we get the traditional self-sacrifice by explosion, then fade to black.
Conventional, traditional, and safe are not words that should be in one’s dictionary when making a movie about a dragon-winged, octopus faced, extraterrestrial god. Unfortunately, this safe, middling approach culminates in a third act that feels rushed, under thought, and bland.
Tied to this conventional storytelling is the homage execution taking place in Underwater.
The first is the Alice in Wonderland references and the other, more subtly done is Alien (1979).
We’ll start with Alice in Wonderland. Throughout the film, the character of Paul (TJ Miller) would make direct references to these stories. For instance, as water begins quickly leaking in, threatening to drown our heroes, Paul says the line, “It’s like when Alice started crying and almost drowned, only that helped her get out.” Another of these references is Paul’s strange attachment to a stuffed white rabbit toy that he desperately wants to make it to the surface. Why these are in the film is unclear.
I believe they’re attempts at character building — implying that Paul may have a child on the surface that loved this toy. If that’s what all this was, they did a spectacularly bad job at conveying it.
On the other hand, if all this was just a verbal cue attempting to show audiences the parallels between these two pieces of fiction, it’s too obvious. Not to mention the fact that Underwater has about as much in common with Alice in Wonderland as The Wizard of Oz (1939) does with Pan’s Labyrinth (2006).
These references feel underdeveloped, pointless, and cringe-inducing.
Next is Underwater’s relationship with Alien. Fangoria, in a Tweet, said, “Stop calling it an Alien rip off and just watch the movie …” I’m not sure what the context for the Tweet was, but I can certainly say that I disagree with them: Underwater did, in more ways than one, rip-off Alien.
I can agree with Fangoria that, yes, Underwater is an entertaining movie people should see. But to just handwave off everything that it pulls from Alien as if it doesn’t matter is just plain wrong. Things from Alien like the design of their suits, the female protagonist, entire shots even — all of that is featured in Underwater! They’re blatantly obvious, even to non-horror fans.
The question isn’t whether or not Underwater just straight-up ripped elements from Alien. The question is: does this impact the movie in a net negative way?
My answer to that is: no, not at all. The problem isn’t that these aspects of Alien exist on screen in Underwater; it’s that they were just incredibly obvious. That said, Underwater is, indeed, its own movie, unlike films such as Harbinger Down (2015), where they just made a bad rip-off of The Thing (1982) and Alien. Underwater treats these elements as what they should be: references and homages. Nothing more, nothing less.
With all that said, this movie is awesome.
Despite a weak third act, bland execution, and the blatant referencing, Underwater is a stellar piece of stand-alone fiction.
Though its story was limited and unimaginative, many of its scenes and set pieces were solid, tense, and engaging. For those worried about a slow start, don’t be. The audience and characters are thrust right into the conflict immediately — no build up, no exposition, nothing. This may sound like a point against Underwater, but it isn’t. Actually, it was quite refreshing!
Every actor did a tremendous job with what they were given, even TJ Miller, who, against popular opinion, was funny and a good addition to the story. Stewart continues to distance herself from the roles of her past, proving she’s versatile and can provide depth to any character she plays. But probably the best performance of the film, hands down, was given by Jessica Henwick, best known for her role as Nymeria Sand in Game of Thrones. If anyone sold me on being afraid and on the brink of madness, it was her. Henwick’s acting is, for sure, a highlight of the movie.
In the tech sphere, the movie is unquestionably amazing.
The cinematography is claustrophobic, intense, and fluid. The lighting is dark, grungy, and oppressive. Underwater’s make-up is dirty and detailed, with blood that’s thick, a little chunky, and a dark, saturated red color; this makes kill scenes all the more grotesque. The creature designs and movements are spectacular, the CGI is solid: literally everything about this film is gold standard.
With everything done so well, it’s painful to see Underwater has bombed hard in the box office. With a budget of nearly $50 million, Underwater only made $14 million worldwide after its initial release. That means a projected loss of nearly $35 million, and that’s not counting the money spent on marketing. In case it’s not obvious, that’s bad for Lovecraft fans in both camps.
One of the biggest conniptions Lovecraft movie fans have ever had about anything is Guillermo Del Toro’s At the Mountains of Madness, a movie no one will touch because no one thinks it will make up the money spent on Del Toro’s projected budget without being PG-13. The man is an Oscar winning writer and director who loves Cosmic Horror to death, yet he can’t make his Lovecraftian Magnum Opus. Why? It’s because of numbers like these, and a staggering lack of return-on-investment, which is bad news to studios.
I implore Cosmic Horror and Lovecraft fans, diehard lit, pulp, and those in-between, to be prepared.
The Old Gods are returning, and it’s not in books or television like many keep saying. It’s in movies.
Hollywood and independent studios alike are finally taking serious notice of our interests in horror. And if we want them to make these movies in the first place, then we have to go see them! We have to show these executives in their ivory towers that there’s an interest in these kinds of films. Otherwise, you can say goodbye to the future of big-budget Lovecraftian cinema for good.