‘Un­der­wa­ter’ a sur­pris­ingly slick bit of sci-fi schlock

Chattanooga Times Free Press - ChattanoogaNow - - FRONT PAGE - BY JUSTIN CHANG LOS AN­GE­LES TIMES

No one will ac­cuse “Un­der­wa­ter” of false ad­ver­tis­ing.

At the start of this lean, ef­fi­cient, un­apolo­get­i­cally de­riv­a­tive deep-sea freak­out, the cam­era drops seven miles be­neath the ocean’s sur­face, where an enor­mous drilling oper­a­tion is in progress. Di­rec­tor Wil­liam Eubank doesn’t have an orig­i­nal story to tell, but he does have a lot of im­mer­sive, at­mo­spheric tech­nique at his dis­posal: Here on the floor of the Pa­cific, the light­ing is dim and dif­fuse, the sound eerily muted, the sense of iso­la­tion to­tal. It would be dif­fi­cult to sur­vive down here; in­deed, life of any kind looks down­right im­pos­si­ble.

But that isn’t en­tirely true, as the cen­tral char­ac­ters will soon re­al­ize to their swiftly mount­ing

‘Un­der­wa­ter’

› Rat­ing: PG-13 for sci-fi ac­tion and ter­ror, brief strong lan­guage

› Run­ning time: 1 hour, 35

min­utes

› The­ater: AMC Clas­sic

Ma­jes­tic 12

hor­ror. With its open­ing ti­tle treat­ment alone, “Un­der­wa­ter” sig­nals its ob­vi­ous debt to Ridley Scott’s “Alien,” which means it’s the lat­est crea­ture fea­ture to strand a bunch of hu­man lab rats in a works­pace that soon be­comes a war zone.

The movie doesn’t have the lan­guorous pauses and si­lences, the pa­tient, un­der-the­skin mas­tery that made “Alien” so in­com­pa­ra­bly dis­turb­ing. What it does have is Kris­ten Stewart in the des­ig­nated Ri­p­ley role, prov­ing that she can push but­tons, turn knobs and drop in­scrutable jar­gon with the best of them.

Here it may be worth not­ing that “Un­der­wa­ter” was pro­duced nearly three years ago but is only now ar­riv­ing in the­aters, un­der the aegis of the now Dis­ney-owned 20th Cen­tury Fox. Its emer­gence from the dark wa­ters of stu­dio obliv­ion is far from un­wel­come: It’s solid enough by the di­min­ished stan­dards of Jan­uary, when the mul­ti­plex be­comes a cine­matic dump­ing ground, and it’s vis­ually slicker and more so­phis­ti­cated than its setup would seem to war­rant.

Then again, it’s nice to think that Stewart, who has one of the most un­fet­tered and con­sis­tently in­trigu­ing ré­sumés of any ac­tor now work­ing, might still be up for the oc­ca­sional mid-bud­get genre ex­er­cise.

She plays No­rah Price, a me­chan­i­cal en­gi­neer whose tough­ness you can more or less glean from her lean, wiry physique and close-cropped, white­blond hair. Just in case, she’s also given a grim back story and some cyn­i­cal voice-over nar­ra­tion: “When you’re un­der­wa­ter,” she notes at the out­set, “you lose all sense of day and night.”

Maybe so, although at a lean 95 min­utes, “Un­der­wa­ter” it­self has no in­ter­est in wast­ing your time. When dis­as­ter strikes in the open­ing min­utes, as the mas­sively pres­sur­ized rig is dev­as­tated by what seems to be an un­der­sea earth­quake, No­rah swiftly springs into ac­tion, bat­tens down the hatches and en­sures the sur­vival of four other crew mem­bers. Tem­po­rary sur­vival, any­way. With the rig ir­re­triev­ably com­pro­mised, the cap­tain (Vin­cent Cas­sel) de­clares that their only course of ac­tion is to don as­tro­naut-style sub­ma­rine suits and walk along the ocean floor to an aban­doned rig, where there will hope­fully be es­cape pods at their dis­posal.

It’s pretty much the best worst idea ever, made even bet­ter or worse by some squid-like creepy-crawlies ly­ing in wait just out­side the rig. Eubank, heed­ing the in­valu­able lessons of “Jaws,” doesn’t re­veal his mon­sters right away, beyond a quick flash of teeth or ten­ta­cles. The best, creepi­est scene is un­sur­pris­ingly the one in which our pro­tag­o­nists grad­u­ally re­al­ize what they’re up against, a dis­cov­ery that un­folds in near-si­lence and near-to­tal dark­ness.

At its best, “Un­der­wa­ter” is quite lit­er­ally in its el­e­ment: In the able hands of cin­e­matog­ra­pher Bo­jan Bazelli (whose flair for eerie aquatic im­agery was also on dis­play in “A Cure for Well­ness”), the char­ac­ters’ lim­ited vis­i­bil­ity and mo­bil­ity be­come our sources of ter­ror as well as theirs.

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