Underwater ★★★

A shallow but satisfying creature feature that splits the difference between classic disaster movies and Lovecraftian horror, William Eubank’s “Underwater” is a film out of its time. For one thing, it was shot almost three years ago, back when bonafide disaster artist T.J. Miller was still vaguely cast-able (i.e. before he became so toxic that Mucinex fired him as the company’s spokes-snot). For another, it’s an expensive, original, multiplex-ready B-movie in an era when virtually anything with an $80 million budget has to be about superheroes or new subscribers. In fact, the project’s anachronistic nature is so pronounced that even its profoundly screwed characters can sense it bubbling up around them.

“Underwater” is gasping for air from the moment it starts. Set almost seven miles below the ocean surface aboard a deep-sea drilling complex that’s exclusively populated by hot millennials, the movie dives right into the abyss with nary a hint of set-up. At its center is Norah (Kristen Stewart), a mechanic at the bottom of the world. Sporting a short-cropped blonde dye that illuminates the screen with Lori Petty vibes, the actress gives Norah such palpable anxiety that the movie is never able to normalize its nightmare scenario; she’s just as terrified (if a bit more capable) as any of us would be down there, and that unfiltered vulnerability allows “Underwater” to remain scary during even its silliest moments. Spending most of her scenes in the coiled, rattlesnake-like defensive crouch that she’s perfected in various indies over the last few years, Stewart adds much-needed detail to a one-dimensional role. All we know for sure about Norah is that no one takes a job in hell unless they’re hiding from something.

“On the ocean floor, you lose all sense of time,” she tells us in the voiceover narration that Adam Cozad and Brian Duffield use to plug the holes in their seaworthy script. But for Norah, who’s only kept afloat by cynicism and self-sacrifice, that feeling of oblivion might be more of a feature than a bug. Who is she running from? What is her employer hoping to find down there? Why don’t movies like this still let us spend 40 minutes chilling with Yaphet Kotto and Harry Dean Stanton before the shit hits the fan?

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