Claustrophobic thrillers reached their zenith during the 1990s, reflecting the last great self-contained cinematic spaces but also the possibility of a new viewing experience just beyond them. Time and again, Hollywood produced escape narratives that seemed to allegorise the multifarious structure of the multiplex – films that were acutely aware of being emedded in multiplexes – while also gesturing towards a cinematic spectacle that might break out of multiplex viewing. For that reason, these thrillers, which included Daylight, Mimic, Entrapment and Cube, were usually proto-digital, featuring characters who had to use digital surrogates and devices to explore space beyond what they could immediately apprehend. I acutely remember standing in line for The Blair Witch Project as the main multiplex in Sydney – George Street – was being radically refurbished for the first time. Waiting in what amounted to a deconstructed multiplex bled seamlessly into the digital textures of Blair Witch, which in its own way was also an announcement that the multiplex was slowly losing its dominance.
Conversely, the rise of streaming platforms has made it harder for directors to recapture this claustrophobia that was once so synonymous with the multiplex experience. Underwater, however, comes closer than any film I’ve seen, by taking us to the deepest point in the ocean – the Mariana Trench. Virtually all of the exposition is condensed to the opening credits, which situate us in Kepler 822, a drilling rig operated by Tian Industries at the bottom of the trench. We’re then briefly introduced to Norah Price, a mechanical engineer played by Kristen Stewart, in the few precious minutes before the rig starts to implode and buckle, forcing her to search for a way out, along with the other survivors she meets on the way, played by Vincent Cassel, Mamoudou Athie, T.J. Miller, John Gallagher Sr. and Jessica Henwick. We never see the surface of the ocean and we never experience the depths outside of this traumatic event, whose cause emerges quite gradually – initially attributed to malfunction, then an earthquake, and finally to a creature that seems to have emerged from the depths.
In some ways, though, this creature is a bit of a MacGuffin, or at least it’s not the prime point of horror. Instead, Eubank sets out to evoke everything profoundly alien about the deep sea – the silence, the proximity to the earth’s crust, the pressure per cubic inch and, above all, the unending darkness. In effect, the film traces one trajectory, in which the remaining crew members have to undergo a treacherous passage to safety, making their way from one surviving hull or pod to the next before embarking upon a half mile walk along the very bottom of the trench. Even without the monster this works brilliantly as survival horror, borrowing just enough from gaming to enhance the cinematic apprehension of it all without ever feeling like a straight adaptation of a game. As the crew start their precarious path, all the horrific elements of deep sea existence converge on the profoundly alien quality of water en masse, which in turn dedomesticates the ocean, restoring its mythic intensity. In most adventure films, water is a source of sustenance – here it’s a massive destructive force crushing in on all sides, and equally frightening in small amounts, whether through trickles that foreshadow an imminent cave-in, or the droplets that cascade on live wires and consoles.
For the most part, 80s and 90s films tended to shy away from full underwater horror, presumably because other sources of claustrophobia were still available during the multiplex era. Even ostensible deep sea horror films like The Abyss and Sphere were still slightly indebted to Vernian wonder, lapsing into sentimentality at odd moments and junctures. Since then, the multiplex experience has shrunk, while water has also taken on a new Gothic intensity in the wake of massive climate change, leading to a more pessimistic spate of underwater horror films in the last couple of years. While water is the main source of danger in Underwater, it’s only dangerous because of an extreme heat event – the nuclear core of the drill shutting down and gradually imploding – resulting in the temperature outside rising ten degrees by the time the crew start walking along the trench floor. At first they speculate that they might have bored into a hydrothermal vent, but they gradually discard this possibility to concede that the rising temperatures are man made, resulting in a kind of global warming horror – a conjunction of ambient heat and concrete masses of water that evoke whole oceans warming and surging into human space in a way I haven’t seen done before.
Since this combination of water mass and rising temperatures can’t actually be seen, Eubank tends to fall back upon darkness to capture it – and evokes the horror of darkness in a way that few horror or science fiction films still can. Like claustrophobia, horror once depended on the darkness of the multiplex, meaning it’s much harder to pull off in a streaming era where films are nearly always experienced in proximity to a light source (often the light source of the streaming device itself). To counter that, Eubank digs into a darkness that’s far deeper and denser than outer space, for two key reasons. First, there are no stars or planets to light the way, while the water tends to disperse and distend light more than occurs in outer space. Second, this darkness is much murkier and more viscous than other space, full of algae, detritrus from the drill, and the weird slime that the creature seems to deposit on every surface it touches. Between these two valencies of darkness, Underwater is indeed blank and black enough to encompass whatever space or device you watch it on, though I can imagine (as someone who watched it on a television) it must have been utterly sublime in a cinema.
In this way, Underwater signals the exhaustion of outer space as a vehicle for science fiction – and the peculiar darkness of science fiction. From the very beginning, Eubank makes it clear that the Mariana Trench is an intensification of outer space, presenting the rig as a free-floating spacecraft in a disorienting opening tracking-shot. After all, the Mariana Trench is one of the darkest places in the known universe – infinitely more remote than the moon, as one of the survivors comically recognises when they come across a packet of Moon Pie floating in the wreckage. The closest that classical science fiction – that is, sci-fi set in outer space – has come to this profound darkness and disorientation is probably Gravity, but in some ways Underwater has more in common with films that have also tried to find outer space cognates elsewhere. I was especially reminded of The Descent, which turns to caving to recapture the waning darkness of space, although Underwater is even bleaker in its cavernous voids. Jean-Pierre Jeunet also glimpsed this transition two decades ago in Alien Resurrection, which includes a series of underwater scenes set in outer space, via a massive tank on one of the vessels that allows us to see the xenomorphs swimming – quite terrifyingly – for the first time.
In that sense, Underwater picks up where Alien Resurrection left off – it’s as true a companion to the quadrilogy as any of Ridley Scott’s prequels. This seems intentional , since we’re at the depths where sea life starts to segue back into alien morphology, meaning that the creatures that emerge look like aquatic evolutions of the xenomorph – or just return the xenomorph back underwater, where H.R. Giger got his inspiration to begin with. After all, Giger’s design, and by the extension the aesthetic of Alien, was about transplanting the otherness of deep sea into outer space, a process that Eubank takes to its logical conclusion here, culminating with the profound otherness of the Mariana sea floor, where the last half hour takes place.
This incredible third act depends on two distinct spectacles, both of which complement each other. In the first, we’re bunched right up inside Norah’s helmet, confined to her vision, and collapsed into her shallow breathing, which becomes even more frantic when she realises she has to turn off all her sound and lighting to dissuade the creature from attacking her. In these scenes, we come close to how a first-person perspective of the Mariana floor would genuinely look, and the results are more frightening, disorienting and (literally) alienating than virtually anything I’ve seen in science fiction over the last decade. This paves the way for the second spectacle – the creature, which we only glimpse in passing, but which effectively embodies the trench, combining the alien morphology of deep sea life with the scale of the deep ocean.
Nevertheless, Norah does get through these two obstacles, and finds shelter in a disused station that takes the other big signature of the series to its logical conclusion – 90s grime. During the 90s, science fiction was obsessed with the spectacle of water percolating across and through technology, since it both visualised the imminent obsolescence of analog technology and suggested a new digital fluidity on the horizon. Eubank invokes the same industrial grime here, elaborating one cybergothic fusion of water and technology after another, until Norah seems more woman than machine, and the distinction between organic and inorganic breaks down entirely. It’s no coincidence that we first glimpse the creature at the junction of wires and water, nor that the creature’s tentacles look like wayward wires that have wrapped around the ship, since the creature really is just an emanation of the seabed as a proto-digital space – a place where conventional constriction and claustrophobia starts to break down into a new kind of glitchy image that, in its own way, is even more oppressive.
With the bottom of the sea presented as an inherently digital medium, the digital transmissions from the seabed back to the various surviving hulls feels even more uncanny – like a double digital transmission that mirrors the film’s efforts to return to this 90s digital transition from the other side. And at the heart of that experiment is Stewart’s butch chic, which channels Ripley’s buzzcut in Alien 3, and makes Underwater seem suspended somewhere between the third and fourth Alien films. During those years, Eubank posits, something shifted inextricably in science fiction – and while we might have only been able to hear the distant rumblings at the time, they were as prescient as the first few tremors of the drill here, spilling out into a massive reconfiguration of the audiovisual field that Underwater enacts as much as it periodises and describes. Call it a late echo of Alien, then, a ripple of Ripley’s body twenty years later – even more fragile in its embodiment, even more post-human in its austerity, and even queerer in its discorrelations from the world surrounding it.