Why’s it Rotten? The case for why Underwater was a Box Office Sinker.
Everyone's a critic. In fact, being a critic in this digital world is just about the easiest thing you can be. All it takes is an account on social media and the ability to compose a message.
While criticism can be upsetting, it also acts as a valuable tool. For the consumer, critical analysis can save us from wasting our valuable time on a terrible movie and having to scarf down stale, overpriced popcorn in order to sit through it.
For a creator, it makes us take a more analytical view of our product, and drill down into how our creative genius so spectacularly flatlined. We can use it for research, as a means to understand what is desirable to the market, or even to test the waters to see if there really is a taste for our mini-series covering the invention of sandpaper (kudos for anyone who got that one).
In short, critique is what helps us to raise our game, so that we can learn and improve our craft. That, however, is dependent on whether we have the skills to weaponise that critique and use it to our advantage.
(To learn more about this, check out my article on How to Give Better Feedback.)
With that in mind, I start this series called Why's it Rotten? in which I will deep dive into big movies that received poor critical reception.
Using the help of my favourite movie review aggregator, RottenTomatoes.com, I will breakdown the response from critics, as well as my own opinions, to better understand why these movies didn't live up to their potential.
For the purposes of this series I will be focusing on large scale movies with plenty of budget for development, and I while I will mostly focus on story issues, I will also look at factors such as poor casting, or other production decisions that I feel derailed the final outcome.
For my first victim, I have chosen Underwater (2020), a movie that could have been amazing, but for a multitude of reasons, fumbled the dismount.
As we're interested in learning, instead of bashing these movies, I will give my analysis of what worked, what didn't, and what lessons we can learn to improve our own writing.
And while I'm sure it goes without saying, there will be...
So, for anyone who hasn't seen Underwater, it is a deep sea creature feature, starring Kristen Stewart, directed by William Eubank, and written by Brian Duffield (Love & Monsters (2020)) and Adam Cozad (The Legend of Tarzan (2016)).
The movie itself is summarised on Google as follows:
Disaster strikes more than six miles below the ocean surface when water crashes through the walls of a drilling station. Led by their captain, the survivors realize that their only hope is to walk across the sea floor to reach the main part of the facility. But they soon find themselves in a fight for their lives when they come under attack from mysterious and deadly creatures that no one has ever seen.
That all sounds pretty cool, right? I'll admit, I was sold easily when I first saw the movie pop up on NowTV. However, after watching it I have... mixed feelings.
As I so often do after a movie gives me a severe case of the... I'm not sure what I think of this... I took a jaunt over to RottenTomatoes for some good ol' fashioned confirmation bias.
While the audience score is a respectable 60%, the critical score is a meagre 47%. Ouch.
Before I start giving my 2-cents on the matter, let's examine what the critics had to say:
The Abyss meets Aliens with a bit of The Poseidon Adventure, a lot of Pacific Rim and a dash of The Meg in this subaquatic sci-fi that offers nothing more than the sum of its references.
2/5 - Kevin Maher, The Times
It's not that bad, it is just not any good.
Mark Kermode, Kermode & Mayo Film Review
For true fans of the genre, Underwater isn't going to cut it. It's a rushed adventure that hopes the audience doesn't want to get too technical and will give it some leeway, sacrificing quality for a quick fix.
Candace McMillan, KOMO News (Seattle)
Underwater is an ocean floor, people in peril flick, with loads of wet, claustrophobic atmosphere but little in the way of actual thrills.
2/5 - Richard Crouse, CTV News
And to this, I wholeheartedly agree. It's a movie that's just astoundingly okay. It's nothing we haven't seen before, which is unfortunately compounded by pretty average execution.
I have now watched this movie a few times, and I can honestly say there were a lot of points where I thought, "I can really see where you were going with this", or "This would be so scary if Paul would just STFU", (more on that later).
Like a lot of movies that just miss the mark, there is actually quite a lot to like about Underwater. So, let's talk about what worked...
I will say that I think for the most part, this film was well cast with Kirsten Stewart at the helm and a short turn from Vincent Cassel as the team's doomed Captain. They embodied the characters well and were believable in their roles.
There was some nice use of foreshadowing, particularly with the opening metaphor of Norah saving the spider and how that relates to her ultimate fate. This character will save a life no matter the consequence for herself, which is everything you could want in a heroine. Though the climax plays out rather predictably, with Norah sacrificing herself, her stoic determination throughout and quiet acceptance of her inevitable death make it deservedly compelling.
I really enjoyed the deft use of exposition, particularly in the opening sequence between Norah and Rodrigo. You learn everything you need to know about Norah extremely organically through their introduction to one another as relative strangers.
Then, Norah has to bust open a terminal to override a locking mechanism, which shows both her role on the drilling plant and her expertise in said role. Within seconds we are clued into these characters without anyone ham-fistedly telegraphing plot points for the viewers in the back who were busy scrolling through Instagram.
Character quirks, in early scenes particularly, are expressed visually or dropped organically into dialogue without feeling forced. In terms of expository scenes, these ones were extremely well-handled.
Okay, now we've covered the positive, let's drill down into what went wrong with this movie, and most importantly, how it could be improved.
Issue 1: Skipping over Act One
Right off the bat, Underwater makes a huge narrative mistake in the fact that it pretty much skips over its first Act. Lip service is paid to it with a short scene of protagonist, Norah Price (Stewart), brushing her teeth in their modest drilling station bathroom, exorcising her inner demons by way of an existential voiceover.
This scene in and of itself is actually really good. Particularly the metaphor of Norah choosing to help a spider caught in the sink, rather than indulge her instinct to kill it. I have no problem with scene, it just isn't enough to bed me into the characters, and affected my emotional connection to them throughout.
A lot of people don't really understand the point of a first Act, "it's just setting the scene, right? Who cares what they were doing before they're thrust into action? blah blah blah". While it might seem boring, particularly compared with the fireworks of an inciting incident, it is absolutely crucial for giving the audience an emotional grounding with your characters.
Your protagonist is a vehicle for the audience to vicariously experience the movie. We latch onto characters by seeing parts of ourselves, or traits we long to experience, within them. We understand how to feel about secondary characters by how they relate to our diegetic surrogate. We can't do this unless we know who these characters are, at least a little bit.
Due to this failure to latch me into the characters early on, I legitimately did not give a shit about anyone, except Norah, for the majority of the movie. Crawling through the collapsed drilling station to collect people who I've never seen before... *shrug*. Guy implodes because his suit was compromised? "Whatever".
What I would have loved would be a short sequence with the camera following Norah through the station as everyone on her shift gets ready for bed. Here we could get a brief introduction to most (if not all) the important characters, and see how they interact.
Maybe Paul (TJ Miller) high-fives Norah and they have a quick exchange, we pass Emily (Jessica Henwick) and Liam (John Gallagher Jr) being couple-y. A perturbed Liam could stop Norah and ask -"Lucien said anything about those tremors earlier?", to which Norah says - "Aww, you scared, Liam? It's probably just seismic activity, but I'll take a team out to assess the rig in the morning".
Then, we'd enter the bathroom, and the original opening scene would play out. Norah would drop her social mask and we would see the silent grief she holds inside.
Just that tiny hint into the characters, for me, would make a huge difference to this movie.
Issue 2: Soulless and derivative
A downfall of this movie is that it is riddled with clichés, which illicit eye-rolls more readily than thrills. My personal favourite being the weird and utterly impotent Captain Lucien (Cassel) dead daughter twist.
This one is so excruciatingly obvious, with the him forgetting her age Freudian slip, that he might as well have just screamed SHE'S DEAD directly into Norah's face. Instead we're forced to sit through another forty-odd minutes of shenanigans before we learn the secret.
This is a cliché that seems to be used a lot as a means to give male characters some mystery to their moodiness. This exact plot twist appears in unbelievably bizarre fashion in the movie Bushwick (2017), where main character Stupes (Dave Bautista) drags Lucy (Brittany Snow) through a besieged Brooklyn in order to save his family who he already knows full well ARE DEAD. It's not even a he was in denial that they were dead situation... he knew the whole time that they were dead.
I feel like I am committing a meta-cliché in what I am about to write but... like... maybe just don't write in so many clichés. Seems pretty logical to me. Ask your beta-readers something along the lines of "were there any parts of the story that made you want to crawl out of your skin?" and then red pen through any sections like that.
Issue 3: Poor casting / unbalanced tone
This point is one of the most heinous wrongdoings of this movie. While most of the casting decisions were fine, there was one, massive, giant, glaring misstep in packaging this project--
--and that was casting... TJ Miller.
I can't claim to know the ins and outs of the decision here, but it very much feels like the character of Paul was shoehorned in purely for the benefit of casting Miller.
For me, personally, this choice was the most detrimental failing of this film. Miller pulls focus, his hammy delivery breaks tension, and the character is given far too much importance for someone who doesn't in any way drive the plot. His only defining contributions being a few heavy-handed Alice In Wonderland references and some bad humour.
Touching upon the uneven tone, the overall vibe of this film is that of a horror/thriller in the same vein as Alien (1979). Therefore, in order to reach it's full effect, each sequence must slowly ramp up the tension until we reach our break-neck, crescendoing climax. So, what's this comic relief character doing in here?
Yes, all good thrillers use reversals to keep the audience on their toes (the cinematic equivalent of edging), and I can understand how comic relief could be seen as a means to achieve this. However, since thriller and comedy are essentially opposing genres, I don't personally feel this is the most effective strategy. If I'm meant to be scared, TJ Miller shouldn't be cracking one-liners about a guy who looks like sushi.
I'm not saying comedy never works in the context of a horror/thriller, as is apparent in Jordan Peele's Get Out (2017). In this movie, Peele balances irony and elements of farce in a manner that are almost a wink to the audience, making these more comic reversals a much needed, and more tonally appropriate, pressure release.
Unfortunately, Underwater is too self-serious making these attempts at comedy jarring and increasingly frustrating, since moments of tension are never given room to reach their peak before being deflated by one of Miller's loud-mouthed cracks.
I very rarely cheer when a character dies a horrible death, but WOW did I when Paul died. #SorryNotSorry
This one is a tough because most screenwriters have little to no say when it comes to casting movies, and casting is as much about politics as it is about who is actually right for the part. Potentially the miscasting could be a product of an incongruence between the intended tone of this movie and how the script was written. It appears Eubank was going for something more gritty and maybe didn't know how to balance the script's more ironic elements.
I feel this is something that was a downfall of the The Legend of Tarzan (2016), also written by Cozad, which struggled to balance a gritty tone with Marvel-esque asides and quips. This new obsession with artlessly blending genres is rife and seems to be propagated by suits in boardrooms doing the equation of X + Y = MONEY and failing to see the bigger picture.
The main take-away here is, even though it can be beneficial to try to mimic what has already been successful, its difficult to cookie cutter creativity in a way that isn't soulless. We should be writing in ways that serve the story, rather than just trying to retrofit what worked before into a new frame. If a sequence is written into the script purely for the sake of it, then it's most likely going to come across that way.
Context is extremely important, which is why similar sequences and payoffs will work in one movie and be seen as a pointless rip-off in others. There's no shortcut to success when it comes to resonating with an audience. The point of art is to be innovative, and yet somehow we're becoming photocopiers churning out grainier and less impactful pastiches. It's time to be authentic, serve the story, and stop trying to shoehorn in plot points that don't fit.
In conclusion, while Underwater is a serviceable movie for a night of Netflix and Chill, frustratingly it has the ingredients to be an instant classic, but just doesn't quite manage it.