The opening shot of "Underwater" roves around the empty, industrial passageways of some kind of transport vessel, the bulkheads creaking. Motivated by an unknown force, the camera's pan ultimately lands on Norah (Kristen Stewart), who has cropped bleached hair and a mouthful of toothpaste, clad in her skivvies. Immediately the audience recognizes this will be Stewart's "Ripley moment," paying homage to Sigourney Weaver's iconic role in Ridley Scott's "Alien" (but at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, rather than in outer space).
Norah is a mechanical engineer aboard a large structure surrounding the Kepler ocean drill, which is in the business of penetrating the Earth's crust searching for minerals like a hungry anteater. She's a cynical sort of savior, scooping spiders from the sink, but she knows how to make the tough decisions, too. When the structure is rocked by several massive jolts, she's forced to sacrifice a couple of colleagues while sealing off a passageway to save the whole ship. Soon it's just a small group of survivors, hoping to make their way down to the ocean floor and across to another drilling station, the Roebuck. It seems their vulnerable suits and the deadly pressure from the miles of water they're under will be the most dangerous thing to navigate, but they're of course underestimating the real threats of what lies beneath.
Written by Brian Duffield and Adam Cozad, the specter of "Alien" haunts "Underwater," a damp riff off and tribute to the 1979 extraterrestrial horror thriller. One can imagine the pitch meeting: "It's 'Alien' on the ocean floor!" But it hews so closely that one can easily predict each story beat, each reveal, each jump scare. Director William Eubank distinguishes the formulaic film with a jittery artfulness rendered in shades of gray and green, but what elevates the B-movie is the presence of Stewart, who is both a movie star and a great actress. Although she sometimes seems to vacillate between the two poles ("Charlie's Angels" vs. "Personal Shopper," for example), in "Underwater," she is both, bringing her cool élan to this monster movie under the sea.
Oh yeah, "Underwater" is a monster movie, but you knew that, right? This Lovecraftian tale takes the "Alien" structure and plunges it "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea," with a nod to Neil Marshall's claustrophobic 2006 cave horror flick "The Descent." The result is something Jules Verne could only dream of, putting even the iconic Xenomorph to shame.
The sickly green aesthetic and harried editing brings a queasy verve to the proceedings, and coupled with the cast (Stewart is joined by Vincent Cassel, John Gallagher Jr., Jessica Henwick, Mamoudou Athie and T.J. Miller), "Underwater" rises above its generic provenance. But as stylish as it is, and with as many deeply treacherous and inventive dilemmas as the group faces, the film is so faithful to the formula that it never achieves pulse-quickening suspense. It devolves into a grim box-checking as our final girl drags herself around the murky environs of the ocean floor. "Underwater" never quite breaches the surface from good to great, though this well-appointed creature feature proves to be an excellent showcase for Stewart's screen presence.