Technically speaking, Underwater, the new waterlogged creature feature starring Kristen Stewart, is a Walt Disney Company release. Disney inherited it when they bought 20th Century Fox, which had been keeping Underwater safely concealed on a shelf for a while now (it completed principal photography back in 2017). The last year has seen several Fox releases that might not have been greenlit post-Disney, but Underwater represents a particularly Fox-like type of movie that will almost certainly cease now that Disney controls their soon-to-shrink pipeline. As Underwater disappears from theaters, so goes the sometimes great, sometimes shlocky tradition of the Fox sci-fi/horror thriller.
Most of the big studios have some kind of sci-fi history, especially now that astronaut movies are all the rage. But beyond Fox’s initial forays into the genre (how are The Day the Earth Stood Still and Fantastic Voyage not on Disney Plus?), beyond even their distribution of the first six Star Wars movies, many of their longest-running movie franchises are sci-fi: Planet of the Apes, Alien, Predator. Sci-fi had such a strong foothold at Fox that even its more recent flagship franchise, the comics-based X-Men series (which has one more offshoot, New Mutants, coming out in April after its own stay on the shelf), often feels as much like a Fox series as a Marvel one—sometimes to the chagrin of Marvel fans, who have come to expect a certain level of consistency and quality control in their superhero movies. X-Men’s mix of genre highlights and major disappointments very much fits in with the Apes, Alien, and Predator sagas.
Underwater is not at the level of the typical Alien or Predator movie; it’s closer in spirit to chintzier Fox one-offs like Morgan or The Pyramid. But within that realm, it’s halfway decent January junk food, benefiting mightily from the presence of Kristen Stewart in a de facto Sigourney Weaver role. Stewart plays a mechanical engineer on a massive underwater oil rig, and the movie wastes no time in throwing her into peril. That’s part of the movie’s novelty: Every non-Stewart character is introduced after disaster strikes in the first five minutes, placing almost all of the film’s exposition in the middle of the action. This can sometimes make the storytelling as murky as the submerged visuals and sound mix. But whether the movie was cut down to the bone or short by design, it sprints from disaster movie to survival story to underwater-creature-fighting with impressive fleetness.
Director William Eubanks (of the indie sci-fi/horror movie The Signal) works within the Fox genre tradition by attempting to make the most of his movie’s limitations. When the characters must venture out of their failing oil rig into the briny deep, both the atmosphere and the monsters often lurking just out of frame have an eerie, smeary look that could generously be called painterly, at least when it’s not muddling the action at hand. The movie’s interiors have a grunge-tech aesthetic that recalls the working-class bona fides of Alien, a good match with Stewart’s visual hybridization of relatable, terrorized Ripley from Alien and close-cropped, tortured Ripley from Alien 3. Eubanks seems to understand what he has in Stewart, often closing in on her face from within a bulky scuba suit, or emphasizing her desperate physicality as she runs, crawls, and otherwise scrambles through an ocean of debris. Stewart has understandably and productively spent most of her post-Twilight career in smaller, smarter movies, but Underwater and Charlie’s Angels suggest that the occasional studio movie can be enlivened by her unforced charisma.
Underwater doesn’t have much room for the half-dozen other actors to make much impression beyond the stock-character types that sometimes barely register because we know so little about them. The movie constantly appears on the verge of making some kind of plot-related revelation about the characters’ knowledge or motives regarding the freaky creatures they’re all encountering, but whether through a re-edit or native expediency, it never goes that far (appropriately enough, the one revelation has only to do with the monsters’ physicality). In nearly every scene, the movie is more interesting in the moment than it is with any sort of reflection. Yet paradoxically, this quality made it grow a bit in my memory, composed almost entirely of images: The crumple and bend of walls around the characters; Stewart sitting in silhouette in a command center; all of that greenish undersea murk.
Also, while the movie’s titular setting presents both logistical and visual challenges, it comes with a major Fox sci-fi advantage: There are no opportunities to shunt the characters off to a clearly Canadian forest, a money-saving location that has popped up in Fox genre movies like Alien vs. Predator: Requiem, Elektra, and—used evocatively, for once—The Wolverine. With its mysterious creatures, sometimes-grainy camerawork, and strong central performance from Stewart, Underwater plays more like a knockoff of Cloverfield, the J.J. Abrams-produced giant-monster movie-turned-franchise that feels like it should have come from Fox instead of Paramount.
It may not seem like a great tragedy that Fox is unlikely to produce more January-ready monster movies that try to rip off Cloverfield, revive Predator, or pattern themselves after Alien (the less gory legacy of Apes appears secure; Wes Ball, who made the Maze Runner sci-fi trilogy for Fox, is developing a new version). But it speaks to the Disney monoculture that the company appears so unlikely to dip into genre waters without the safety best of a billion-dollar franchise. A lot of shlock is individually disposable, but put together it comprises a rich cinematic tradition, and a movie like Underwater is especially refreshing coming on the heels of so many year-end blockbusters and awards contenders. It’s a 95-minute chaser lacking the weight of a truly excellent genre movie—and still manages to put across some memorable images. A January without enjoyable junk like Underwater will be a slightly colder, lonelier one.