'Underwater,' starring Kristen Stewart, is an homage to 'Alien' — and a planetary warning

It's one of those horror films that suggests that, even if there are some survivors, the apocalypse has been postponed rather than banished.
Kristen Stewart in "Underwater."
Kristen Stewart in "Underwater."Alan Markfield / Twentieth Century Fox
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By Noah Berlatsky

William Eubank's new deep-sea monster film, "Underwater," is one we've seen before. The science-fiction slasher plot, the dimly lit, grimy aesthetic special effects are pulled straight from "Alien." The lessons about what horrors are unleashed when scientists go too far date back even further, to Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein." The movie even steals some major plot twists from another recent submerged suspense thriller, 2014's "Black Sea."

Given its lack of originality, and its obvious debts to predecessors, you could call "Underwater" derivative. But in our current context, a disaster horror film about the ocean's revenge feels less like a tired retread, and more like a warning. The warning keeps repeating because no one seems to be listening.

But in our current context, a disaster horror film about the ocean's revenge feels less like a tired retread, and more like a warning.

"Underwater" is set on a deep-sea fossil fuel mining rig, which is badly damaged. The workers initially assume they've been battered by an earthquake, but it eventually becomes clear that the rig’s drilling has disturbed a nightmarish Cthulhu-like monster and its terrifying anthropomorphic spawn. Engineer Norah Price (Kristen Stewart), Captain Lucien (Vincent Cassel) and a handful of other survivors have to walk across the sea floor to find escape pods that will get them to the surface, as the creatures, in good slasher fashion, kill them one by one.

The movie clocks in at a brisk 95 minutes, in part because it almost completely dispenses with exposition and pre-catastrophe character development. Usually disaster films, or monster films, have a slow half-hour build to introduce the doomed and play up foreshadowing. Not "Underwater," though. There's one brief scene in which Norah looks in the mirror and thinks briefly about how much she misses her ex. Immediately thereafter the water starts to come in and she's running frantically through narrow corridors to escape the flood.

"Underwater" gets right to the action because it figures you know the tropes already. In part, this is because it's a genre product that hopes you know it's a genre product, and trusts you to be aware of the tropes. In our current context, the rushed beginning also feels like a timely nod to our current ongoing, ocean-related crisis event. Whether or not Eubank intended it, he's provided a nice shorthand reminder that the natural disaster that's at the top of everyone's mind right now doesn't have a clear beginning. Climate change is already well underway. There aren't 30 minutes in which to get our bearings.

The film's evocation of climate change goes well beyond starting in the middle of the plot. The characters are all employees of a fossil fuel extraction company. Thus, the hunger for energy is what unleashes catastrophe. "We've drilled too deep. We've taken too much," Emily (Jessica Hanwick) says in a moment of despair. "Now [the ocean's] taking back."

The monster is disturbed when the team drills into a heated deep-water vent. One of the first signs that things have gone badly wrong is when the ocean temperature spikes. This causes the characters to comment, with some panic, that water shouldn't behave like that — echoing the many scientists who have been warning about our own rapidly increasing sea temperatures.

Of course, global warming isn't actually a giant ugly monster in a horror film. Part of the reason it's hard to organize against climate change is that climate change isn't a movie antagonist; it's a process, rather than a bad guy. In order to make it fit into pulp tropes, you have to make climate change (explicitly) responsible for vampires, as in Netflix's "V Wars," or (implicitly) responsible for flying sharks, as in the "Sharknado" series. Narratives like this turn climate change into something you can fight by shooting it in the face. They suggest if we're brave and have enough firepower, we can defeat this thing.

"Underwater" does have brave people with firepower killing monsters. But, even for a horror film, it is also remarkably good at evoking futility and disempowerment. Much of the movie is images of people constricted — sealed into bulky suits, or crawling through narrow passageways, unable to move or see. Their technology and expertise are constantly failing; the special effects and sound design are murky and confusing. Our heroes have trouble seeing or understanding what's pursuing them.

"Underwater" does have brave people with firepower killing monsters. But, even for a horror film, it is also remarkably good at evoking futility and disempowerment.

As in "Alien" and "Aliens" before it, "Underwater" lays the blame for the disaster at the feet of the corporate overlords, who have little compunction about sending people into danger for profit. The only difference in the new film is that those corporate masters are even more faceless and less accountable. Ridley in the “Alien” films gets to gripe about, and even yell directly in the face of, her corporate employers. The characters in "Underwater," though, don't even talk about their bosses; we learn about the higher-ups only through headlines flashed on the screen at the beginning and the end of the movie. These faceless figures are unmoved by death, sacrifice or heroism, and are more powerful and untouchable than even the monstrosity risen from the deeps.

"Underwater” has received some terrible reviews, and in any case its conclusion makes direct sequels unlikely. But it's one of those horror films that suggests that, even if there are some survivors, the apocalypse has been postponed rather than banished. There's still a demand for fossil fuels, after all, and the corporations are still out there.

"Underwater" doesn't say anything new. In part, that's because it's a movie made for people who like this kind of movie. But it's also because when you're talking about climate change, there's not much new to say. We know what happens if we keep drilling. If "Underwater" is familiar, perhaps it's because the same fate is still out there, closing around us, like water rising.