‘Underwater’ Is the Year’s First Fun, Batsh*t-Crazy Movie—Despite T.J. Miller’s Presence
Kristen Stewart facing off against mythical man-eating monsters seven miles below the ocean’s surface? A lot of fun! Even if scumbag co-star T.J. Miller threatens to ruin things…
Comfort food isn’t always warm, palatable, and cozy. Sometimes it’s a little spicy. Maybe even insane. That’s especially true in pop culture.
There are few pleasures greater than a batshit action movie. We’re operating in a different world than the rewards derived from objectively good cinema. Grandma’s grilled cheese is in a different culinary universe than the 11-course tasting menu at Eleven Madison Park, yet both inspire joy.
In that same vein, I hope you’re caught up on your Oscars contenders—there’s a lot of great movies out right now—but I also hope you go see Underwater in theaters. It’s outrageous. It’s thrilling. It might actually be bad. I loved it.
At its heart, Underwater is one of those great theme park movies (eat your heart out, Martin Scorsese) like Backdraft or Armageddon. You know the type: the cheesy-intense epics where movie stars exhibit superhuman tenacity in navigating a relentless gauntlet of everything-that-could-go-wrong-does obstacles, while production designers and effects producers manifest their truly wildest dreams.
There are so many deranged, delightful things to talk about with Underwater, as is the case when there’s a bad-movie-good-movie like this one. The January action/horror/thriller release is a blessedly special kind of film.
Directed by William Eubank, the film centers on a small group of aquatic researchers who are the sole survivors of a disturbance that decimates their submerged lab. Their only shot at living is a dangerous walk across the dark ocean floor, seven miles below the ocean surface, to an abandoned rig that hopefully still has functioning escape pods.
Oh, they’re also being hunted by man-eating, mythical sea monsters. It’s a survivalist creature feature under the sea. Kristen Stewart stars! (So does disgraced comedian T.J. Miller. The “WTF” of it all isn’t limited to the on-screen thrills. More on that later.)
There’s a certain giddiness in these kinds of movies as inevitable disaster looms, the main event audiences anticipate with the tortured glee of a kid waiting for Santa Claus to close out the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Bring on the destruction, death, and mayhem! Underwater delivers with a clever bag of tricks.
For one, its opening moment is a gripping action sequence in which the submerged workstation has a water breach and Stewart’s electrical engineer Nora finds herself brushing her teeth one second and the next is fleeing cannon blasts of rushing water, collapsing infrastructure, and frayed wires spitting sparks.
You’re catapulted into the film’s pressure-cooker of suspense, and Eubank doesn’t let up, all the way through to the CGI spectacle climax: the predestined showdown between Nora and the supreme monster.
In some respects, it’s all familiar B-movie stuff.
There’s the unabashed “we’re basically just going to try to make Alien” ambition that plagues the genre. There’s the jump scares. There’s the violent lunacy—apparently seven miles below the sea, the pressure makes people explode?—and the misogynistic lunacy; it’s astonishing how much of its running time a film that takes place in the actual ocean features Kristen Stewart running around in her underwear.
But there are also things about Underwater that are undeniably elevated.
The production design is excellent, with each set piece containing a chaotic maze of corridors so labyrinthic it skirts comic lunacy and becomes properly intense. The low-light cinematography when the characters journey through the water and face the monsters works wonders to dial up the horror, even grounding the film in a certain kind of foreboding theologism: What happens when humans go to a part of the world where they were never meant to be?
It’s a pleasure as always to see Kristen Stewart in a leading role like this. With a bleached buzz cut and styled, eye-rolling as it may be, so often to show her ripped physique, there’s an obvious Ellen Ripley motif that everyone’s going for. She’s such a gripping, subtle performer, packing such quiet ferocity, that she lives up to the comparison. With this and the recent Charlie’s Angels remake, she’s surprised by flexing her acting muscles in genres that few people may have figured her suited for after her brooding, fidgety meteoric early rise.
Then there’s T.J. Miller, a presence that threatens to ruin the fun of the entire enterprise.
On the one hand, there’s the off-putting, off-camera baggage.
Principal production on Underwater, which cost a reported $80 million to make, ended in May 2017. That was five months before The Daily Beast reported allegations that the actor had sexually assaulted a woman during his time at George Washington University in 2001. (In a statement, Miller and his wife, Kate, characterized the accuser, who was Miller’s former girlfriend, as vindictive, claiming she was capitalizing on the #MeToo movement to “bandwagon and launch these false accusations again.”)
The next year, Miller was arrested on federal charges related to a fake bomb threat made while aboard an Amtrak train. Three months later, Alice Wetterlund, an actress who played a recurring character on Miller’s HBO comedy, Silicon Valley, accused him of misconduct on set. Miller and HBO had already made a joint decision at the end of the previous season that he would not return to the show.
That’s a lot of drama to take place after shooting wrapped on a film that cast an actor in a supporting role because his star, thanks to his roles on Silicon Valley and in the Deadpool movies, seemed on the rise back in March 2017, before any of this was reported. Short of editing a major player out of a film or shelving the expensive enterprise entirely, there’s not much that could’ve been done about the fact that seeing him on screen is exasperating and off-putting to anyone familiar with his alleged actions.
On the other, there’s the tired cliché that his presence represents in the first place. It should come to no one’s surprise, if you’ve seen Miller’s work, that he portrays the comic relief in Underwater. He’s the wise-cracking buffoon in an otherwise thrilling film that truly doesn’t need one.
Take solace that, ahem, not all characters make it to the end. (If this is a spoiler to you, you’ve been depriving yourself of this genre of movie for far too long.)
It’s ludicrous to recommend this movie when it’s opening on the same weekend that Sam Mendes’ Golden Globe-winning World War I epic 1917 goes wide in theaters across the country. That film is a master class in action filmmaking, generating tension through cinematography and anxiety-inducing survivalist thrills—all the strong suits of Underwater, yet hardly on par.
In that respect, Underwater is the grandma’s grilled cheese I was talking about—the comfort food to counterbalance the refined taste of Oscar season. You know, should your palate crave some man-killing sea monsters.