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  • Writer's pictureSL Eastwood

Why Underwater Failed to Make Waves at the Box Office

Updated: May 11

Despite its potential this Kristen Stewart creature feature left critics out to sea...

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 a 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 suffer 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.


So, let's take a look at 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.

So, let's look at why Underwater failed to inspire its audience...

Spoilers graphic

Underwater, 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 is summarised on Google as:

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?

Being a big Kristen Stewart fan, 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 – "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.

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.

After watching the movie a few times, there were so many points where I thought, "I can see where you were going with this" or "this would be so much scarier if Paul would just STFU!"

(SPOILER ALERT – Paul sucks)

What works?

For the most part, this film is well cast with Kirsten Stewart at the helm, plus a short turn from Vincent Cassel as their doomed Captain. They embodied the characters well and were believable in their roles.

There is some nice use of foreshadowing, particularly with how Norah saving a spider 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 fate 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 the need for any ham-fisted exposition.

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.

The issues...

Issue 1: Skipping over Act One

This might be personal preferenced, but 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 this scene on its face, it just wasn'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, who cares what they were doing before they're thrust into action?".

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.

Characters are a vehicle for us, the audience, to vicariously experience the story.

We latch onto them because they embody parts of ourselves or traits we wish we had. We need to see their interpersonal connections and how they impact their environment in order to properly connect with them.

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 I don't know...? *shrug*.

Guy implodes because his suit was compromised? "Whatever".

Solution 1:

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 to ask–

Liam: Lucien said anything about those tremors earlier?
Norah: Aww, you scared, Liam? It's probably just seismic activity, 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's riddled with clichés, which illicit eye-rolls more readily than thrills. Particularly the utterly impotent Captain Lucien (Cassel) dead daughter twist.

The Freudian slip of him forgetting her age was so excruciatingly obvious, 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 this "special secret".

This exact plot twist appears in the movie Bushwick (2017), where Stupes (Dave Bautista) drags Lucy (Brittany Snow) through a besieged Brooklyn in order to save his family who he already knew were DEAD. Which was also astoundingly obvious from the start.

I can't get my head around this in either movie. It's such a stupid and redundant twist.


I feel like I am committing a meta-cliché with this but... like... maybe just don't write in so many clichés? Ask your beta-readers something like "were there any parts of the story that made you want to crawl out of your skin?" and then red pen those sections.

No, in all seriousness, when you're dealing with genre tropes, it can sometimes be difficult to work out what is a cliché and what is an expectation of the genre. You need to ask yourself whether what your writing is logically consistent with both character and world.

Most of the time people accuse writers of a cliché because it is perceived as lazy writing. If your only aim is to give a character texture, without caring if it is logically consistent, then maybe it's better to leave them a bit 2D or mysterious.

I personally would not have cared if they'd cut out that whole Captain Lucien subplot, it was really distracting and poorly executed.

Issue 3: Poor casting / unbalanced tone

While most of the casting decisions are fine, one of the most heinous wrongdoings of this movie was casting––TJ Miller.

Not to hate on Miller, he's been a great addition to many movies, but his energy and presence in Underwater do not in any way match the dark and moody tone.

I can't claim to know the ins and outs of this decision, but it very much feels like the character of Paul was shoehorned in purely to cast Miller. Which, for me, was one of the most detrimental failings of this film.

Throughout Miller pulls focus, his hammy delivery breaks tension, and his character is given far too much screentime for someone who doesn't drive the plot. His 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). Each sequence should slowly ramp up the tension until we reach our break-neck, crescendoing climax. So, what's this comic relief character doing here?

There is merit to using comic relief to keep the audience on their toes, but it doesn't work if every single moment of tension is shattered by TJ Miller cracking one-liners about guys who look like sushi. This isn't a funny situation Paul, learn to read the room.

It can be difficult to balance comic relief without completely destroying your tone. For example, Jordan Peele balances tone extremely effectively in Get Out (2017), because despite the events being legitimately horrifying, it doesn't take itself too seriously.

Unfortunately, the tone of Underwater takes itself very seriously 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 Paul's loud-mouthed cracks.

Thing get a lot better once Paul dies and we can actually enjoy the intended tone of the film.


This one is a tough because most screenwriters have little to no say when it comes to casting decisions, which is ofteb more about politics than who is actually right for the part.

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.

Unfortunately, this new obsession with artlessly blending genres is rife and seems to be propagated by suits in boardrooms doing the equation X + Y = MONEY and failing to understand why those things don't always work in practice.

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, but instead we're mere 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.


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