No one will accuse “Underwater” of false advertising. At the start of this lean, efficient, unapologetically derivative deep-sea freakout, the camera drops seven miles beneath the ocean’s surface, where an enormous drilling operation is in progress. The director, William Eubank (“The Signal”), doesn’t have an original story to tell, but he does have a lot of immersive, atmospheric technique at his disposal: Here on the floor of the Pacific, the lighting is dim and diffuse, the sound eerily muted, the sense of isolation total. It would be difficult to survive down here; indeed, life of any kind looks downright impossible.
But that isn’t entirely true, as the central characters will soon realize to their swiftly mounting horror. With its opening title treatment alone, “Underwater” signals its obvious debt to Ridley Scott’s “Alien,” which means it’s the latest creature feature to strand a bunch of human lab rats in a workspace that soon becomes a war zone. The movie doesn’t have the languorous pauses and silences, the patient, under-the-skin mastery that made “Alien” so incomparably disturbing. What it does have is Kristen Stewart in the designated Ripley role, proving that she can push buttons, turn knobs and drop inscrutable jargon with the best of them.
Here it may be worth noting that “Underwater” was produced nearly three years ago but is only now arriving in theaters, under the aegis of the now Disney-owned 20th Century Fox. Its emergence from the dark waters of studio oblivion is far from unwelcome: It’s solid enough by the diminished standards of January, when the multiplex becomes a cinematic dumping ground, and it’s visually slicker and more sophisticated than its setup would seem to warrant. Some of the actors have gone on to more illustrious projects since the picture was shot, none more so than its star.
Then again, it’s nice to think that Stewart, who has one of the most unfettered and consistently intriguing résumés of any actor now working, might still be up for the occasional mid-budget genre exercise. She may be slumming here, but why not? Underwater conditions have done nothing to diminish her focus and charisma, and her deep dive into this schlocky material makes it that much easier for us to follow suit.
She plays Norah Price, a mechanical engineer whose toughness you can more or less glean from her lean, wiry physique and close-cropped, white-blond hair. Just in case, she’s also given a grim back story and some cynical voice-over narration: “When you’re underwater,” she notes at the outset, “you lose all sense of day and night.”
Maybe so, although at a lean 95 minutes, “Underwater” itself has no interest in wasting your time. When disaster strikes in the opening minutes, as the massively pressurized rig is devastated by what seems to be an undersea earthquake, Norah swiftly springs into action, battens down the hatches and ensures the survival of four other crew members. Temporary survival, anyway. With the rig irretrievably compromised, the captain (Vincent Cassel) declares that their only course of action is to don astronaut-style submarine suits and walk along the ocean floor to an abandoned rig, where there will hopefully be escape pods at their disposal.
It’s pretty much the best worst idea ever, made even better or worse by some squid-like creepy-crawlies lying in wait just outside the rig. Eubank, heeding the invaluable lessons of “Jaws,” doesn’t reveal his monsters right away, beyond a quick flash of teeth or tentacles. The best, creepiest scene is unsurprisingly the one in which our protagonists gradually realize what they’re up against, a discovery that unfolds in near-silence and near-total darkness. At its best, “Underwater” is quite literally in its element: In the able hands of cinematographer Bojan Bazelli (whose flair for eerie aquatic imagery was also on display in “A Cure for Wellness”), the characters’ limited visibility and mobility become our sources of terror as well as theirs.
And to an unusual degree for this kind of cinematic elimination game, their terror inspires more empathy than schadenfreude. For the most part, anyway: There is one member of the crew, played by an aggressively wisecracking T.J. Miller, who may as well have a large “EAT ME” sign affixed to the back of his suit. But Norah’s other colleagues are a surprisingly likable bunch; credit the screenwriters, Brian Duffield and Adam Cozad, for sparing them the wild incompetence and forced bickering that typically prevail under circumstances like these.
You hope for nothing but the best for hard-working technical experts like Rodrigo (Mamoudou Athie) and Smith (John Gallagher Jr.), as they squeeze their way through the narrow rocky passages and wire-strewn corridors of Naaman Marshall’s waterlogged production design. Jessica Henwick is especially good as Emily, a young marine-biology student whose fear of whatever may be stalking them soon turns into fascination.
Like Cassel, these are actors who could have worked wonders with even a sliver more emotional development, even if it would have been ultimately antithetical to this movie’s down-and-dirty aims. The characters are as perfunctory, in the end, as the script’s brief nods at eco-thriller alarmism, its tacked-on acknowledgment of the dangers posed by deep-sea drilling and a ruthless corporate machinery designed to keep them from public view. Underwater, it seems, no one can hear you lay waste to the planet for profit.
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes
Playing: In general release