Underwater stars Kristen Stewart in a generic sci-fi/horror tale

Underwater (M)

One star

B-movies used to be a cinema staple. Early on, studios made them cheaply to fill out the bottom halves of double bills (remember those?). Then B-movies went out on their own, particularly in genres such as horror and science fiction. Some were even lower in budget and/or quality and were referred to as C or even Z movies.

Kristen Stewart in Underwater. Picture: Alan Markfield/Fox

Kristen Stewart in Underwater. Picture: Alan Markfield/Fox

Not that all non-A pictures were bad, nor all A-pictures good, by any means - money isn't everything. But plenty of the B (or lesser) movies were not intended to be anything more than cheap moneymakers.

Latterly, what used to be B films have gone straight to DVD and TV and streaming services, given rising budgets, though the relatively inexpensive theatrical horror movie is still going. But some cinema released are essentially the lesser form of B movie in terms of feeling and quality but with higher budgets and delusions of grandeur. Underwater is one of these.

Several kilometres undersea, a corporate base for resource drilling is severely damaged by an earthquake and it's obvious the water gushing in will soon destroy it. Engineer Norah Price (Kristen Stewart) and her colleague Rodrigo (Mamoudou Athie) make their way to the escape pods, rescuing Paul (T.J. Miller) along the way. But when they encounter the captain (Seymour Cassell) at the pod bay, they discover all the pods have been launched and are unable to make contact with the surface.

Along with two other survivors, Emily and Liam (Jessica Henwick and John Gallagher Jr), they decide to don underwater suits and walk on the ocean floor to another station. As if that's not challenging enough, along the way they encounter hungry monsters.

This sci-fi/horror hybrid has a reported budget of at least $US50 million ($A70 million) - substantial but nowhere near the cost of many present-day blockbusters. It's directed by William Eubank, who made the low-budget sci-fi films Love (2011) and The Signal (2014), both of which cost much, much, much less - together, about 10 per cent of Underwater's budget.

The film has a decent cast - though Miller is an acquired taste - and some impressive special effects and atmosphere. The beasties are reminiscent of H.P. Lovecraft creations but there's not much literary talent in evidence here. But Underwater seems awfully familiar, derivative of much better movies such as Alien (1979). There are some gestures towards environmental issues and the exploitative practices of big business in an attempt to provide some topicality and depth, but they're not enough to make up for the story and character deficiencies. Cliches abound: for example, in lieu of setting up the film with individual, well-developed characters, there are quickly sketched types, like the Stoic Leader, the Scaredy Cat, the Comic Relief and the Heroic Protagonist. And there's another character cliche I won't reveal, but you'll know it when you see it. There's the typically lugubrious, clanky undersea score and the film is claustrophobic and dimly lit (sometimes excessive so).

How and why a star of the stature of Kristen Stewart (in a blonde buzz-cut) ended up in Underwater feels like more of a mystery than the nature and origin of the monsters. The film is obviously going for scares, suspense and cheap thrills but it's only occasionally successful.

If you're a massive science fiction and/or horror buff, you might want to check this out but you could find something similarly cliched for free at home.

This story Sinking in a sea of aquatic cliches first appeared on The Canberra Times.