Release Date(s)2020 (April 14, 2020)
Studio(s)20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
- Film/Program Grade: B
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: B+
Underwater is a genuine sleeper, in the purest sense of the term. It was released in January of 2020, two months prior to the pandemic taking root and shutting down theatres worldwide, but January still isn’t a big month at the box office. It’s where films get dumped when studios have no confidence in them, and Underwater certainly fell into that category. It was a Fox production that was greenlit prior to the Disney takeover, and since the Mouse House was only after the Fox catalogue, not its current production slate, they effectively buried Underwater where the sun doesn’t shine. Their lack of confidence (and a threadbare marketing campaign) was rewarded by a corresponding lack of box office receipts. Interestingly enough, that actually works in Underwater’s favor. It never had a chance to enter the popular consciousness, so its central mysteries remain relatively unknown. It’s still possible to be surprised while watching Underwater for the first time, and that’s a rare thing these days.
Underwater falls loosely into a subgenre of undersea movies that includes The Abyss, Leviathan, and Deepstar Six. At its most basic level, the screenplay by Brian Duffield and Adam Cozad is nearly indistinguishable from any of those films: an industrial deep-sea rig suffers from an unexpected incident, and the workers left on board must fight to survive an undersea death trap. Yet just as Iago declared that “I am not what I am,” Underwater isn’t really what it is. It does follow many of the familiar story beats from the genre, but this tale serves a different master. One of the biggest delights in Underwater is discovering what’s going on at the same time that the crew does. The reveals are carefully paced, and sometimes even hidden in plain sight. There’s a beautifully staged moment shortly before the halfway mark that might make you rewind to make sure that you didn’t imagine what you thought that you saw at the periphery of the screen—and the real story is just beginning at that point.
The key to why all of it works so well is because it happens within the context of the general struggle for survival, and the characters don’t have any time to stop and smell the roses. They’re racing to stay one step ahead of the elements, so they barely have a chance to absorb what’s happening around them. As soon as they solve one problem, another quickly takes its place. In Underwater, everyone and everything is defined solely by the action. Efficiency is a lost art in filmmaking these days, but director William Eubank and his team of editors keep things tight in this film. Underwater is a lean, mean 94 minutes long, with no wasted fat. The rollercoaster ride begins shortly after the opening credits finish, and it barely takes a moment to breathe until the closing credits start to roll. The characters are too busy to fully grasp the real threat, and that’s why audiences end up being surprised along with them.
Since there’s no time to provide detailed backstories for everyone, casting is crucial to the effectiveness of this kind of film. Alien created the model for how to cast idiosyncratic actors in each role so that audiences intuitively grasp everything that they need to know about the characters. While Underwater falls short of the high bar set by Ridley Scott, it still has distinctive actors like Kristen Stewart, Vincent Cassel, and T.J. Miller, none of whom need much screen time to distinguish themselves from each other.
Full credit also needs to go to cinematographer Bojan Bazelli, who knows how to create atmosphere through darkness and contrast. Underwater does have all of the questionable physics and scientific wonkiness that’s shared by most undersea movies, but it breaks the mold by getting the lighting right for a change. There’s absolutely no light at those depths other than man-made ones, and the density of impurities in the water doesn’t allow any light sources to penetrate very far into the blackness. Bazelli’s cinematography is appropriately dark and murky, and it really enhances the feeling of being deep underwater. The visual effects provide a great deal of assistance in that regard, since the majority of the film was shot dry-for-wet, and the water effects were added later. (Let’s just say that things have come a long way since the dry-for-wet scenes that Peter Jackson staged for the Lord of the Rings films.) There’s no need for suspension of belief while watching Underwater, because the effects are completely convincing.
Underwater trades on fears of the unknown, so it’s appropriate that it relies on things that are barely glimpsed in the dark. It’s not exactly a Val Lewton film that leaves everything to the audience’s imagination, but it does strike a good balance between that approach and today’s tendency to show too much. It also doesn’t necessarily spell everything out, either, so the ending may not have the same meaning for every viewer. For those who understand the reference, it’s even more enjoyable. There’s an adjective that’s frequently applied to this kind of story, but Underwater makes the bold choice to literalize that metaphor. It doesn’t just tease at something; it actually goes there. (There’s a hint that’s been carefully hidden in one of the names in the film, although it’s oblique enough that it might not be noticeable.) In the end, Underwater appears to stay safely within the confines of the undersea subgenre, while actually being something else entirely. It’s a pleasant surprise, and that’s the real heart of what it means to be a sleeper.
Bojan Bazelli captured Underwater digitally at 6.5K resolution in ARRIRAW format using ARRI Alexa 65 cameras with Panavision Primo 70 and G-Series lenses. It’s been variously reported as being finished as either a 4K or a 2K Digital Intermediate, but either way, the final results were framed at 2.39:1. As presented on 1080p Blu-ray, the image is as sharp and crystal-clear as it can be, though of course the scenes that take place in the underwater environments are less clear due to the water effects. The colors are muted by design, but they’re always accurate, and the contrast range is excellent, with deep blacks—when things disappear into the shadows, it’s because they’re supposed to do so. It’s a shame that Fox declined to release a 4K UHD for Underwater, even if it only utilized a 2K DI, as it could have benefited significantly from an HDR grade. Still, this Blu-ray is no slouch, and it’s a gorgeous presentation of the film.
Primary audio is offered in English 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio. Underwater was released theatrically in Dolby Atmos, and while it’s not a surprise that Fox failed to include that mix on Blu-ray, it’s still a disappointment. Fortunately, the 7.1 mix is no slouch, and it’s the kind of track that upmixes nicely via either the Dolby Surround or DTS:X algorithms. The sound design veers sharply between quiet moments and explosive ones, but it’s incredibly immersive at all times. The viewer is constantly surrounding by creaks, groans, and the sounds of dripping water, but when the action kicks into full gear, it’s a full assault from all sides. The bass is thunderous, and there’s plenty of dynamic impact from the action. The score from Marco Beltrami and Brandon Roberts anchors the mix, and it takes some interesting directions at the end of the film. It may not be Atmos, but this mix still supports the visuals perfectly. Additional audio options include English 5.1 Descriptive Audio, and Spanish and French 5.1 Dolby Digital. Subtitle options include English SDH, Spanish, and French. (There are also English, Spanish, and French subtitles for the commentary track.)
20th Century Fox’s Blu-ray release of Underwater includes a slipcover, and it also has a Digital code on a paper insert tucked inside. The following extras are included, all of them in HD:
- Audio Commentary by William Eubank, Jared Purrington, and Phil Gawthorne
- Extended/Deleted Scenes (6 in all – 14:48)
- Real Bunny Montage (3:25)
- Making Underwater: Design (17:54)
- Making Underwater: Production (19:50)
- Making Underwater: Creature & Visual Effects (19:56)
- Theatrical Trailer (2:20)
The commentary features Eubank, producer/concept artist Jared Purrington, and writer Philip Gawthorne (the latter of whom did uncredited rewrites for the film). It’s a freewheeling track, with the group reacting to what they see and following whatever tangents that interest them. It’s a bit scattershot, but they do provide interesting information about the design work, sets, costuming, and effects, as well as practical stories about the shoot. They also discuss their thinking behind the way that the design work influenced the story.
The Extended/Deleted Scenes can be played individually or as a group, with or without optional commentary from Eubank, Purrington, and Gawthorne. They include Crew Suit Up, Gantry Exit, Baby Clinger, Midway Station, Ocean Floor Walk, and Smith Departure. The majority of them are extended moments rather than deleted scenes, and while there are some nice expanded character moments, it’s easy to see why they were trimmed in the name of efficiency. Real Bunny Montage can also be played with or without commentary from the trio. T.J. Miiler’s character carries a stuffed rabbit throughout the film, but it was originally a real rabbit, and this is a montage of the footage of that animal prior to it being removed from the film. (There’s actually a single shot in the final cut where the actual bunny is visible, but it’s difficult to spot without having it pointed out.)
Making Underwater is a three-part documentary that combines behind the scenes footage, film clips, and interviews with the cast and crew. (Oddly enough, it’s the one extra on the disc that doesn’t offer a “Play All” option.) Design demonstrates how the conceptual art and design work was brought to life by a talented team of artists. It shows how the sets and environments were built, as well the construction of the diving suits. Production focuses on the practical considerations of shooting an undersea movie on soundstages. The actors were wearing 80 lb suits without any real water to provide buoyancy, so it was an arduous production for them, even with wire support. Everything was shot in sequence, so that helped provide continuity for the cast. Creature & Visual Effects first looks at the dry-for-wet effects, and then it concentrates on the creatures. The mandate all throughout the project was not to show too much. Interestingly, it’s the evolution of the creature design that ultimately influenced the nature of the story more than the actual script did. Making Underwater is as much of a pleasant surprise as the film itself: it’s a genuine making-of documentary made in an era when EPK fluff and talking-head interviews are the rule of the day.
For a film that was unceremoniously dumped into theatres, Fox has provided a nice set of extras to support their Blu-ray. Underwater cries out for a 4K Ultra HD release, but a planned Australian disc never materialized, and it’s unlikely that any other will show up to take its place. Still, there’s plenty of life left in the Blu-ray format, and this is a fine example of what it can do. Underwater deserves a wider audience in any way, shape, or form.
- Stephen Bjork