‘Underwater’ dives right into intense frights in the abyss (Movie review)

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nderwater” is like a fond throwback to those B-list horror films that used to hit theaters in January a couple decades ago. 1997 through 2000 gave us “The Relic,” “Deep Rising,” “Virus” and “Supernova,” but then the trend died out. Director William Eubank’s “Underwater” brings it back, with one exception: This tale of desperate survivors on a steadily collapsing deep-sea oil rig is darn good, start to finish.

After a slight nod to characterization via mechanic Norah (Kristen Stewart) narrating about the dreamlike quality of this gig on a rig, “Underwater” skips the slow build. It’s like “The Abyss” on amphetamines.

I like how none of the survivors are particularly brave about this terrifying scenario. “Underwater” shows how survival situations bring out different traits in different people.

The screenplay by Brian Duffield and Adam Cozad taps into a lot of oceanic thrillers, but not in a bad way. It inspires me to revisit things like “The Abyss” and “Deep Rising” and “Leviathan.” Eubank and his editors play the events like a rollercoaster. We get the thrill of finding more survivors, and I like how none of them are particularly brave about this terrifying scenario.

Even Captain Lucien (Vincent Cassel, doing great work on “Westworld” at the moment) doesn’t totally have his wits about him. The most openly scared of the survivors, intern Emily (Jessica Henwick of “Iron Fist”), tries to get people talking about their family and pets, and the captain gives the entirely wrong age for his daughter, as he’s not thinking straight.

T.J. Miller’s Paul is a rather sweet comic-relief figure, clutching his stuffed animal partly as an affectation and partly to put Emily at ease. Meanwhile, a shy love story plays out in this most unnatural of circumstances between Emily and Smith (John Gallagher Jr.). “Underwater” shows how survival situations bring out different traits in different people.

And then we get the stomach-sinking moments. If there’s something that terrifies you, “Underwater” taps into it as the survivors trek to a station that has functioning escape pods. Yes, they literally walk on the ocean floor seven miles below the surface. I’m not sure about the science on that, but I do know it’s not something you see all the time. Our team crawls through cramped tunnels, worries about a slowly cracking faceplate, and frets over oxygen-tank levels. Plus …

(SPOILERS FOLLOW.)

… here be monsters. It could be argued that the situation is scary enough – and the warning about venturing where we should not venture is strong enough — if it’s simply an earthquake triggered by drilling. But the Lovecraftian monsters are creepy as hell.

I’ll lodge a minor complaint that we can’t see them all that clearly – last year’s “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” does a better job of blending mood with clear looks at the creatures – but generally the cinematography by Bojan Bazelli rings true. No doubt he is seriously fibbing the lighting quality at the ocean’s bottom to show us this much.

Speaking of “Godzilla: King of the Monsters,” that movie spends a lot of time on a story that I don’t remember all that well, whereas “Underwater” has no plot beyond the mission to survive. It can get away with not showing off the set construction, because knowing this is a state-of-the-art structure of tunnels and airlocks is enough. The malfunctioning intercom adds irony via its automated announcements: Along with the expected “Proceed to the nearest escape pod,” we hear messages about the exciting future of Tian Industries.

At 95 minutes, there isn’t an ounce of fat on the bones of this film; the short runtime is refreshing in this day and age. Hopefully “Underwater” will start a new trend of tense and scary early-on-the-calendar B-movies.

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