There are only so many ways to tell a story, and some of the
rules cannot be broken. One of the rules is to give audiences enough information
about the characters, setting, motivations, crisis, and more in the first act
of the movie. Underwater folds those foundations into later parts of the
film, and the story doesn’t work because of it.
Underwater takes place in the near future where an
underwater drilling exploration is taking place roughly 7 miles below sea
level. When the film begins, audiences are introduced to Norah (Kristen
Stewart) who is a mechanical engineer. As she’s brushing her teeth one day, the
installation suffers a breach, and water comes pouring in. Now, she and a
handful of survivors, including her Captain (Vincent Cassel), must walk the
ocean floor to get to another location where there might be a few lifepods
left. Unfortunately, the drilling appears to have unleashed underwater
Underwater’s production value is great. The sets look
believable, the underwater scenes look real, and the cinematography is
beautiful. It’s obvious that a lot of thought was put into the visuals.
Additionally, the cast does an exceptional job with the
material they have to work with. Granted, this film doesn’t call for nuanced
acting. Instead, the actors just need to exhibit the extremes of emotions, like
fear, anger, despair, etc. Nevertheless, Kristen Stewart and Vincent Cassel
manage to eke out just a little bit more from their roles to hint at extra
dimensions to their otherwise flat characters.
The biggest problem with Underwater is that it has no first
act, essentially. In the first few minutes of the movie, all audiences get is
Norah brushing her teeth and waxing poetic about darkness and time. Before
viewers can digest those cryptic scraps of philosophy, the installation begins shuddering
as water breaches the walls and floods the corridors. As Norah is running for
her life, other characters get introduced at the height of this crisis. So,
with the tension ramped up to its upper limit and with things exploding or
imploding on screen, there’s no time to care about any of these characters.
For a film like Underwater, an extended first act
would have gone a long way in telling a satisfying story. Without an adequate
first act, audiences don’t get to know the characters, don’t understand their
motivations or backstories, and don’t have a feel for the installation the
characters are in. As a result, viewers will feel very removed from what’s
Since there isn’t any information that would normally come
from a first act, moviegoers can’t have an opinion on whether or not the
characters’ decisions are good or smart or will likely result in failure or
success. So, it’s hard to have expectations. And without expectations, audiences
are just watching people do things.
The other symptom that arises from this super short first
act structure is that some foundational elements that are normally set up in
the first act are placed later in the film instead. The best example of this is
when two survivors are having a conversation about their dogs late in the film.
It’s a bonding moment, and its inclusion is understandable, but why is it
happening now while there are monsters all around?
Personally, I am a big fan of this sub-sub-genre. There’s horror.
Then there’s sci-fi horror. Then there’s the monster sci-fi horror set
underwater or in space or in a remote base surrounded by harsh terrain. Some of
my favorite movies to rewatch are DeepStar Six, Leviathan,
Pandorum, and of course, Aliens. In all of those films, there are
survivors that you get to know early, there are monsters, and there is an
imminent threat that forces the survivors to face the monsters in order to
live. It’s a simple formula that just works. Underwater doesn’t quite
follow that formula, and the film suffers for it.
After watching the film and comparing it to the trailer, it’s obvious that there is significantly more story than what audiences got. From the brief segments stitched together, one can see burgeoning relationships, backstories, and character depth. The marketing agency that cut the trailer together knew what audiences wanted to see in Underwater. I wish that version had made to theaters.