'Underwater' and the Legacy of Aquatic Horror

Underwater Still 3 - 20th Century Fox Publicity -H 2020
20th Century Fox
The sub-genre has often faltered with critics and at the box office, but that doesn't' mean it should be left at the bottom of the ocean.

[This story contains spoilers for Underwater]

At the bottom of the ocean, no one can hear you scream. It seems impossible to discuss William Eubank’s Underwater, the new aquatic horror film from 20th Century Fox, without the specter of Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) looming large. The familiar trappings are all there. There’s a motley crew of working-class heroes, played by Kristen Stewart, Jessica Henwick, Vincent Cassel, John Gallagher Jr., Mamoudou Athie and T.J. Miller. And each are performing their roles in service to a specific character type. There’s a claustrophobia-inducing scenario in which air-locked chambers become just as uninhabitable as the cold darkness outside. And of course, there’s that thing in the shadows, a monster, picking off crew members one by one in viscerally brutal fashion. The marketing for Underwater has made no secret of the influence of Scott’s iconic sci-fi horror film, also produced by 20th Century Fox. The film’s familiar trappings follow a long line of so-called “Alien knockoffs”, some really good and others not so much. But Underwater is more than the legacy of a singular influence. It’s much more than Alien underwater. It’s the kind of film built on the backs of cult films that manages to be both familiar and entirely engaging, because it knows exactly what it is.

Let’s dive all the way back to 1989 for moment. That year saw the release of DeepStar Six, Leviathan, The Evil Below, Lords of the Deep and The Abyss. The latter film, directed by James Cameron, kind of resides on the outskirts of the “horror” genre but is close enough to fit within the conversation. What’s interesting is that despite the surge of these aquatic horror movies that year, all sharing at least some elements with Alien, none of them, except Cameron’s film, fared particularly well at the box office, or scored with critics. But a number of these films, particularly DeepStar Six and Leviathan, have become cult classics among the horror crowd thanks to special edition Blu-ray releases. Never underestimate the ability of a once critically maligned horror film to find its rightful audience in the present day. But these films and their impact to the genre are underestimated, which undoubtedly accounts for some of the division on Underwater between critics and general audiences, and those specifically invested in horror and the aquatic horror subgenre. While some see a film that fails to live up to Alien, others see a film that isn’t attempting to do that at all but to find its own level of B-movie artistry.

Filmmakers have returned to the concept of underwater stations and submerged wrecks, beset by creatures from the depths again and again over the years, with films like The Rift (1990), Deep Rising (1998), Sphere (1998), and Virus (1999). They’ve all added this niche category within the subgenre of aquatic horror and its better known, pre-Alien films like Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), Jaws (1975) and Piranha (1978) whose influence can still be seen today on high profile releases like The Shape of Water (2017), The Meg (2018), and Crawl (2019). Similar to our fascination with space, there’s just something we can’t shake about the unexplored areas of the ocean, something arguably more terrifying than the question of what exists beyond the stars. And this fascination, particularly post-Alien, has created a cinematic shorthand, a language that’s not entirely novel, but doesn’t need to be.

When we talk about genre films, it becomes so easy to size everything up to the first entry, be it Superman: The Movie (1978), Halloween (1978), or Alien. But a large part of why we love genre films is because they do offer the familiar, remixing recognizable elements to create what is sometimes satisfyingly surprising but rarely unexpected or revolutionary. It may seem easy, but it isn’t. There is a rhythm to it. Underwater utilizes familiar beats we’ve seen before with characters struggling to survive the wreckage of their ruined station, fighting to get oxygen and combating fleshy aquatic monstrosities right through a hell of a finale, but what Eubank does with those beats still manages to hold our attention and make us feel the panic of the film’s characters. Not only that, but Underwater has a leg above so many other B-movies that stand in the shadows of their A-movie influences in that the film looks great. There’s nothing cheap looking about Underwater, from its production design to its shot composition. Nothing is redefined in terms of look, but nothing fails at being aesthetically pleasing either. Eubank brought a similar craft to his previous film The Signal, a sci-fi film that feels born of The Twilight Zone and the nihilistic sci-fi films of the early and mid-70s like The Omega Man (1971), Westworld (1973) and Soylent Green (1973) that offered a gut punch of nihilism for their endings.

There’s a quality to Underwater that still feels necessary even if it’s not groundbreaking. It’s a monster movie for people who love monster movies, not because they’re new but because they’re what help foster a love of the genre. There’s no deep allegory here or subversion of the rules. But there is Kristen Stewart in a mecha suit at the bottom of the ocean fighting Lovecraftian monstrosities, and there are emotional truths that we know and yet can still find comfort in. Underwater is a $50 million swing at a niche genre. Underwater may have drowned at the box office with just $7.1 million, but it’s the kind of film subgenres survive on, and the kind of film monster-lovers are lucky to have.