Review: ‘Underwater,’ starring Kristen Stewart

January 10, 2020

by Carla Hay

Kristen Stewart in “Underwater”
Kristen Stewart in “Underwater” (Photo by Alan Markfield)

“Underwater”

Directed by William Eubank

Culture Representation: The movie’s characters are a predominately white, educated crew of underwater explorers (with one African American and one Asian) who are tasked with drilling for resources in the deep ocean when they come under attack and fight for their lives.

Culture Clash: Telling a story with an implied environmental message, “Underwater” shows what happens when deep-ocean creatures fight back against humans who plunder their territory.

Culture Audience: “Underwater” will primarily appeal to those looking for a suspenseful sci-fi/horror movie that won’t be considered a classic but will provide about 90 minutes of escapist entertainment.

Kristen Stewart in “Underwater” (Photo by Alan Markfield)

Kristen Stewart: action hero? Taking massive cues from Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley character in “Alien,” Stewart goes from brainy, introspective crew member to kick-ass warrior, as she takes on deep-sea monsters in the sci-fi/horror film “Underwater.” After starring in the 2019 comedy reboot fiasco of Columbia Pictures’ “Charlie’s Angels,” Stewart (who’s been making mostly arty indie films for the past several years) has taken another step into major-studio action fare—but in 20th Century Fox’s “Underwater,” she’s going for scares instead of laughs.

During the opening credits of “Underwater,” there are flashes of media headlines and news reports about unconfirmed sightings of mysterious creatures in the deep ocean. According to the headlines, a major corporation named Kepler has been mining the deep oceans for resources, and hasn’t been giving full explanations for why employees have apparently disappeared from the underwater drilling sites. These elaborate, high-tech facilities (which are seven miles below the ocean surface) look like a cross between a factory, a spaceship and an underground bunker. They’re so high-tech that the Kepler workers living in these facilities for weeks or months at a time don’t need to wear oxygen masks or submarine suits when they’re in the building.

Within the first five minutes of the film, we’re barely introduced to Stewart’s mechanical/electrical engineer character Norah Price (who looks pensive as she brushes her teeth, muses about her isolation in a voiceover, and thinks about her broken love affair with her former fiancé) when the facility is hit with a massive explosion that kills many people in the crew and destroys the emergency equipment. Six of the surviving crew members, including Norah, find each other and agree to a desperate plan to walk across the ocean floor to an abandoned facility named Roebuck, in the hopes that Roebuck’s emergency equipment still works so they can escape or call for help.

The other five crew members are crew captain Lucien (played by Vincent Cassel), a take-charge Frenchman who has a 14-year-old daughter waiting for him at home; marine biology student Emily (played by Jessica Henwick), an inquisitive type who scares easily; operations expert Smith (played by John Gallagher Jr.), who’s in a romantic relationship with Emily; systems manager Rodrigo (Mamoudou Athie), a solid guy who has a dorky side; and wisecracking Paul (played by T.J. Miller, who can’t seem to break out of his typecast as a supporting character who’s socially awkward and talks too much). They soon find out what caused the explosion (Hint: It wasn’t faulty equipment.)

Because the frantic action begins so early in the film, the “Underwater” screenplay by Brian Duffield and Adam Cozad doesn’t leave much room for character development. The actors do the best that they can with the generic characters and mostly forgettable dialogue that were written for them. The movie’s biggest asset, under the choppy direction of William Eubank, is the way it ramps up suspense, even if there are glaring plot holes the size of the ocean where these crew members are trapped. The visual effects for the sea monsters also achieve their intended impact, but the creatures’ very existence in the ocean (much like Godzilla) requires a huge suspension of disbelief. And cinematographer Bojan Bazelli serves up some compelling shots that might give some people the feelings of dizziness or claustrophobia if the movie is watched on a big screen.

However, the “Underwater” filmmakers don’t want viewers of this movie to think too hard, because then you’ll start to ask questions that unravel the plot, such as: “How could creatures of this size and quantity escape detection for so long?” Even if one company tried to cover up the existence of these monsters, their impact on the environment would be noticed already by too many marine biologists and people who work directly in the ocean. Monsters in outer space make more sense if they’re supposed to be undetected by humans on Earth. And at least in the world of Godzilla, millions of people in that world know that Godzilla is a creature that lives in the ocean. In “Underwater,” these monsters are a total surprise to the unlucky crew members who encounter them.

Just like a lot of movies whose plot is driven by suspense, “Underwater” also has a “race against time” element because (of course) the survivors are running out of oxygen. But this plot device is conveniently ignored when these so-called trained underwater professionals waste a lot of oxygen by talking too much. Paul, the annoying motormouth, is the chief culprit. In order to enjoy this movie, you can’t pay attention to the screenplay’s inconsistencies in how their underwater suits are supposed to work.

And since this is a horror movie, not everyone is going to get out alive. But there will be moments of further disbelief when certain characters go through things that would kill someone in real life, and then they survive, and you’re left wondering, “How are they still alive…and with their hair still neatly in place?” And—this is no joke—you can see freshly applied beauty makeup on one of the actresses’ faces after her character has supposedly gone through underwater hell. There must be some industrial-quality waterproof lipstick they have in that underwater bunker. There’s also a small stuffed animal that gets carried around as a good luck charm that somehow doesn’t get lost or destroyed during all the mayhem. “Underwater” is not a movie made for people who pay attention to these kinds of details.

“Underwater” is certainly not the worst horror film of 2020, and the movie’s ending should be commended for not being a total cliché. However, if you want a horror flick with memorable characters and a solid plot, then you’ll have to look elsewhere.

20th Century Fox released “Underwater” in U.S. cinemas on January 10, 2020.

2019 Tribeca Film Festival movie review: ‘American Woman’

May 3, 2019

by Carla Hay

Hong Chau and Sarah Gadon in "American Woman"
Hong Chau and Sarah Gadon in “American Woman” (Photo by Ken Woroner)

“American Woman”

Directed by Semi Chellas

World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 28, 2019.

The dramatic film “American Woman” (starring Hong Chau) has the unfortunate coincidence of having the same title as another dramatic film named “American Woman” (starring Sienna Miller), with both movies about females who’ve gone missing—although each movie has very different reasons for why these females have disappeared and why people are searching for them. The “American Woman” movie starring Hong Chau and directed by Semi Chellas is the one with the world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, and it will be released after the Miller-starring “American Woman” movie.

At the beginning of the “American Woman” movie starring Chau, Chau’s Jenny character is being interrogated by a law-enforcement officer for a serious crime. The rest of the movie is a flashback to what led to Jenny’s arrest. We find out that Jenny is a Japanese-American who has been living in 1970s upstate New York, doing renovation work for a racist retiree named Miss Dolly (played by Ellen Burstyn).

Jenny’s background is murky, but during the course of the movie, we find out that she’s no mild-mannered fixer-upper. She’s been heavily involved in radical, anti-government activities that include bombings and robberies in the name of protests against the Vietnam War and the establishment. And she’s an FBI outlaw. Miss Dolly suspects that Jenny is hiding from the law—but Miss Dolly isn’t quite sure what crime(s) Jenny has committed—and she uses that suspicion to take advantage of Jenny by making her work long hours for below the market wage.

We see that Jenny is writing to someone named Michael, who’s in prison. Michael is part of a mysterious underground network of radicals that has committed a series of bank robberies and bombings throughout the United States. Their crime spree includes kidnapping a newspaper heiress named Pauline (played by Sarah Gadon), who’s joined the group in their criminal activities and may or may not have been brainwashed. (The Pauline character is obviously inspired by the real-life Patty Hearst.)

In Jenny’s letter to Michael, she agrees to help hide and take care of three of the group’s fugitives while they write a book that explains their political beliefs and why they’ve committed extreme crimes. Jenny knows that the underground network is financed by criminal activities, so by taking care of these fugitives, she knows that she will have to commit other crimes too. We find out later that the mysterious “Michael” in the letter is Michael Fisher, one of the leaders of the underground network, and Jenny (who also uses the name Iris) is his girlfriend, and she has a history of making bombs.

Jenny quits her job, and buys an old car from Miss Dolly before she leaves. The fugitives are staying in Monticello, New York, at an isolated farmhouse that they’ve rented under aliases. The outlaws whom Jenny has been tasked with caring for are heiress Pauline, who’s been nicknamed “Princess”; bossy Juan (played by John Gallagher Jr.), a domineering jerk; and Juan’s romantic partner Yvonne (played by Lola Kirke), who is very passive and somewhat afraid of Juan.

In one scene in the movie, we see why Yvonne might be afraid of Juan. When Juan orders Pauline to do something, and she responds, “Don’t tell me what to do,” he hits her in the face. Jenny also has an independent streak, so she naturally clashes with Juan too, but since Juan and the rest of the group are dependent on Jenny to do their grocery shopping and other outside activities, Juan doesn’t get physically abusive with Jenny. Pauline and Jenny’s mutual dislike of Juan bonds the two women in a budding friendship, which foreshadows what happens later in the movie.

“American Woman” is not as suspenseful as it could have been, simply because the movie reveals in the very beginning that Jenny has been arrested. The film often moves at a slow pace in order to depict the isolation and secrecy experienced by the people who are hiding out from the law. There’s a tension-filed scene in the film where the owner of the farmhouse—a middle-aged man named Bob (played Matt Gordon)— unexpectedly shows up, and Jenny has to quickly make up a lie for why she is there. Later in the story, Juan threatens Jenny at gunpoint to force her to commit a serious crime, and it sets off a chain of events in the third act of the film.

“American Woman” is based on Susan Choi’s novel of the same name. The Jenny character was inspired by the real-life Wendy Yoshimura; Jenny’s boyfriend Michael Fisher is inspired by the real-life Willie Brandt (leader of the Revolutionary Army); and Juan and Yvonne are inspired by the real-life couple Bill and Emily Harris, the members of the Symbionese Liberation Army who hid out with Patty Hearst in rural New Jersey, with the help of Yoshimura.

Because “American Woman” is told from Jenny’s perspective, the other characters (except for Pauline, whom Jenny befriends) are written as somewhat one-dimensional. Even though the actors handle their roles capably, there’s a disconnect in how “American Woman” writer/director Semi Challas depicts the outlaws on screen: These characters are supposed to be firebrand radicals, but they’re written as somewhat dull and soulless. Viewers watching this movie will have a hard time believing that these outlaws are so passionate about their cause that they want to write a book about it, because the movie portrays them as lethargic and un-creative.

As the protagonist, Jenny is an introverted character, so the movie might make some people impatient to see more action taking place. This is not the kind of movie that will satisfy people who want everything to be wrapped up neatly in a tidy bow, like a crime procedural TV episode. Because the main characters in the movie are deeply unhappy people, and because we know that it’s only a matter of time before the law catches up to them, there are no real winners here.

UPDATE: Elevation Pictures will release “American Woman” on digital and VOD on June 30, 2020.