Somewhere along the line (perhaps in 2004 with the introduction of the first film in the Saw franchise), Hollywood started turning the horror genre into something . . . distasteful. Filmmakers went from trying to simply scare people to trying to outdo each other by shocking and brutalizing viewers with horribly graphic depictions of torture and mutilation. I mean, just because I might like some unsettling tension and a good jump-scare doesn’t mean I want to watch someone explicitly cut into pieces by some Rube Goldberg torture machine.
That’s one of the reasons why Underwater interested me, a film that looked like it was leaning into the scarier elements of its sci-fi nature, but with a PG-13 rating that insured the frights would be mostly gore-free. Also, the trailer screamed a mash-up of The Abyss, Alien, Deep Star Six, and The Meg, the first two of which I happen to love (especially the far superior—and “finished”—Special Edition version of Abyss).
At 95 minutes, Underwater isn’t a long movie, and I think that might actually be my biggest criticism. The story just jumps right in, with no backstory or character development other than some text on maps and prints during the opening title sequence. After a long opening shot that pans down a massive length of the Kepler research and drilling facility—establishing that we are seven miles under the ocean and well beyond any help from the surface—our first shot is of Norah (Kristen Stewart) in a bathroom brushing her teeth, just moments before all hell breaks loose. I think the film
UNDERWATER AT A GLANCE
This Kristen “One Note” Stewart bottom-of-the-sea horror/thriller might not have been a box-office hit, but it’s a nice, tight 95-minute thrill ride that delivers big on the scares.
Both the atmosphere and action are enhanced by the 4K HDR transfer, which reveals every detail in the meticulously detailed sets and accentuates the pricks of light in the film’s many dark scenes.
The DTS-HD Master mix (no Atmos) is suitably immersive, featuring some of the most powerful and frequent deep-bass action you’ll find in any recent film.
would have been more interesting if we were given the opportunity to know any of the characters a bit and see what daily life aboard the Kepler was like before thrusting everyone into peril.
As it is, Underwater doesn’t much concern itself with telling us anything about the characters or what they’re doing seven miles under the ocean, just doling out the little bits and pieces of info we need to know as the movie unfolds. The upside is we jump straight into the story and the action, but the downside is we don’t really care much when someone meets their demise; it’s just one less person to follow. But maybe no character development is better than something schlocky that feels forced.
I’m not a huge fan of Kristen Stewart and her, ummm, “emotional acting range.” In fact, just Google “Kristen Stewart Underwater” images and you’ll see an entire page of thumbnails revealing approximately the exact same semi-perplexed/
angry/concerned expression. (We also are given no insight into Stewart’s decision to shave her head and dye her hair blonde for the role for some reason.)
However, there is little in this film that requires much emotional range from her. She’s thrust into a pretty terrible situation from the opening moments in which she could die at any second due to any number of factors, so semi-perplexed/angry/
concerned is a pretty appropriate look.
The film’s plot is fairly straight-forward: After a massive undersea earthquake ravages the Kepler, the surviving crew must find a way to continue to survive under the constant threat of immense underwater pressure, lack of oxygen, and a constantly deteriorating habitat.
While making her way to the escape pod bay, Norah encounters other crew members, one of whom is Paul, played by T.J. Miller, who brings his usual sarcastic wit and tension-breaking humor to his scenes. After finding that the escape pods have been jettisoned and that the radio can’t reach anyone topside, the group of six decides their only chance is to don some massively pressurized diving suits, descend to the ocean’s floor, and walk a mile across the bottom of the ocean to join up with another station where they can hopefully resurface.
During the walk, they stumble across an otherworldly deep-sea life form that has been awakened because, as Emily (the film’s other female role, played by Jessica Henwick) states, “We drilled too deep; we took too much!”
That environmental jab aside, Underwater manages to be entertaining and maintain enough tension and mystery that it kept me interested to see what happened next. And it delivered on the “horror” promise with some quality jump-scares that had my wife spilling her drink not once but twice.
Shot on ArriRaw at 6.5K, this transfer is taken from a true 4K digital intermediate, and it shows, with images that are sharp, clean, detailed, and fantastic-looking. Edges are razor-sharp and in focus, and closeups show incredible detail, revealing pores in actors’ faces, as well as defined single-beaded droplets of water or sweat. In one shot, you can clearly see that Norah’s chest is covered in goosebumps. Underwater shots reveal particles floating around that are individually sharp and defined.
The resolution and image quality also let you appreciate the attention to detail in the set dressing. The Kepler appears like it could be a functioning station (well, up until the earthquake), with screens and workstations all around, as well as the large pressurized diving suits with varying degrees of scratches and wear.
This is a movie that really benefits from HDR, with tons of dark scenes punctuated by a variety of bright light sources. The very opening shot has the camera panning down and down (and down . . .) the depths of the dark ocean, showing the Kepler illuminated by different colored lights that shine brightly in the dark background. There are also numerous dark shots inside the station or outside in the ocean lit by bright flashlights, overhead fluorescents, computer screens, crackling and sparking electrical lines, warning lights, etc. and they all look great. Blacks are deep throughout, and remain clean and noise-free.
Any time you are filming under dark and murky water with bright lights illuminating, you run the risk of banding or other digital artifacts. This is only exacerbated when you factor in the higher compression required for streaming. Fortunately, the Kaleidescape transfer keeps these potentially troubling shots from becoming a mess, presenting images without any noise.
Fox has a maddening habit of not providing its digital releases with the fully immersive Dolby Atmos soundtrack available with the theatrical release, and that is again the case here. However, the 5.1-channel DTS-HD Master mix on the Kaleidescape download is so active and immersive—especially when run through a modern receiver’s capable upmixer—you won’t feel
like you’re missing much. (Though I’d be lying if it didn’t make me wonder how much better that Atmos mix could potentially be!)
From the film’s opening moments, we get the atmospheric sounds of water bubbling up overhead, followed by the creaking and groaning of the habitat’s steel structure, along with the steady buzz and hum of overhead fluorescent lighting to put us in the scene of the momentary calm.
Shortly after, the earthquake hits and the Kepler experiences a catastrophic hull breech, with the rig groaning and crumpling all around, filling the room with sounds of metal twisting, steam venting through burst pipe, announcements blaring from the overhead PA, and jets of water bursting. As they move about the structure, the group is accompanied by the surrounding sound of the ambient noises aboard; water dripping and splashing, ongoing PA announcements, electrical lines buzzing and humming. When the crew abandons the Kepler, we are immersed in ocean sounds, and the crew breathing.
The soundtrack also features regular immense bass activity that will push your subwoofer and room to its very limits. Whether it is the deep bass of the structures’ crumpling and buckling steel, or of things crashing and crumbling
around you, the movie has deep, room-jarring bass that is frequent, appropriate, and very tactile. In fact, this might have some of the deepest infrasonic bass signals I’ve heard, causing things to vibrate, shake, and rattle in my room that I’ve never heard before. At one point, I got up off the couch to check to make sure my speakers weren’t destroying themselves due to all the bass energy and discovered that it was my projection screen’s metal housing that was vibrating loudly in sympathy with the bass onslaught!
While Underwater stumbled theatrically, it managed an audience score of 60%, and I think it actually is more suited to viewing in a well-designed home theater. While the plot offers nothing new, it is fun and entertaining to watch, and offers some great visuals along with an even more dynamic, powerful, and immersive surround mix. Also, since the decision was made to not give Underwater a 4K Blu-ray Disc release, the full 51-GB download from the Kaleidescape Store is by far your best viewing option.
Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at
@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.