Years ago when I watched Eubank’s first feature Love: Angels and Airwaves — which featured some similarly blatant borrowings from 2001: A Space Odyssey — I arrived at the conclusion that he just wasn’t a filmmaker. Perhaps that was unfair: he does have talent, despite the various things he isn’t very good at, like character and plot for instance.
So what does interest him? Sound design, for one thing: the movie bubbles and whirrs like a machine that’s heating up but not quite ready for action. And the hazy, diffused underwater light is often beautiful, turning the trench into one vast cathedral dedicated to strange gods.
The dream-like atmosphere must be partly intentional, if the recurring Alice in Wonderland references are anything to go by — though it also seems like a result of sheer indifference to the many gaps in the script.
For a monster movie, the monsters themselves are curiously short-changed (the sources besides Alien appear to include Cthulhu Mythos anthology, as well as Cloverfield). I jumped at one or two moments involving a pocket-sized critter which resembles the offspring that might result if someone’s spinal column crawled out of their body and mated with an octopus. But the bigger threats loom into view only occasionally, as devices to compel the characters to rush around the stricken vessel.
These human characters are no more solidly realised, including Norah herself. Modelled after Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, Kristen Stewart is entirely two-dimensional by comparison. By default, she’s defined by her look, her cropped blonde hair and figure-hugging work clothes conveying a 1990s-style faux edginess that suggests she could be out to challenge Margot Robbie for the lead in the Tank Girl remake.
More or less retaining his dignity is Vincent Cassel as the nominal leader of the group, identifiable from his first appearance as the character most likely to die a noble death. That’s just about it for personalities, unless you count sometime Deadpool sidekick T.J. Miller, as usual playing a wise-cracking oaf with a wider vocabulary than expected.
As usual with comedians in movies of this kind, Miller has evidently been hired not just as an actor but for his ability to think up jokes on the spur of the moment. But most of what comes out of his mouth only makes respect for the movie sink further, including his description of Norah (or Stewart) as a “sweet flat-chested woodland creature”.
Even at the bottom of the sea, it appears, it’s impossible for women to avoid being sneered at. Still, the description draws attention to the distance travelled by Stewart over the last decade or so, starting out as an “ordinary” teenage girl in the Twilight movies and gradually acquiring a more distant, even alien, persona.
Indeed, the moments when Norah shows the most feeling are when she’s all by herself, or with only a Lovecraftian monster or two for company. Perhaps the next logical step could be an end of the world story, along the lines of I Am Legend.
In her stoicism and self-sufficiency, Stewart would be well-suited to play the last human being alive— and even Underwater, a hopeless movie for the most part, does at moments convey a comparable poetry of isolation.
Jake Wilson is a film critic for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.