You need to watch 2020's most underrated sci-fi movie before it leaves HBO Max next week
“We really got away with something that doesn’t usually get to get made.”
20th Century Fox
There was a brief time in early 2020 when things still seemed normal. It was in this brief stretch of time that one movie, notably the last theatrical film ever released under the historic 20th Century Fox name, came and flew under the radar.
That’s a shame because the movie in question had all the makings of a modern classic. It’s an homage to Ridley Scott’s classic Alien with, as a complete surprise, a classic literary monster who bizarrely never had his due on the big screen. It isn’t perfect, but it’s pretty close to it.
Underwater is the sci-fi horror movie that I guarantee you missed in 2020 that you need to stream on HBO before it leaves on June 30.
In a rare moment for these columns, I’m going to provide a big spoiler warning in case you haven’t heard a thing about Underwater. While we can debate if knowledge of the movie’s surprise villain may inspire you to watch it now or never, I do want to keep a sense of suspense — if anything, it fits the themes of the monster’s identity and the genre of horror he belongs. While the reveal would have blown my mind if I saw Underwater in theaters, I also know that getting spoiled is what made me seek out the film as soon as I heard it was on HBO Max.
This long section here is your chance to determine what kind of experience is your preference.
What isn’t a spoiler is who stars in Underwater: Kristen Stewart leads as mechanical engineer “Norah Price,” along with Mamoudou Athie (next year’s Jurassic World: Dominion), Vincent Cassel (Westworld), John Gallagher Jr. (The Newsroom), Jessica Henwick (Marvel’s Iron Fist), and T.J. Miller in one of his last roles after severe allegations against him ended his career.
Also not a spoiler is what Underwater is about. At the bottom of the Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean lies the Kepler 822, a drilling facility deeper than man has gone before. In Alien fashion, the facility is owned and operated by an evil corporation, Tian Industries; the movie opens and ends with a montage of articles revealing how “ethical” Tian Industries behaves.
When an earthquake destroys half the facility, the film’s characters embark on a dangerous survival mission to get to the surface. If that sounds neat to you and you don’t want to know anything more, I invite you to stop reading and head to HBO Max right now. Enjoy!
But if you want to know more, well, ask yourself: What caused the earthquake?
Consider this, one more time, your final spoiler warning. Are you ready?
Who is the monster of Underwater?
Underwater is secretly a Cthulhu movie!
That’s right: H.P. Lovecraft’s tentacled deity, the title villain of Lovecraft’s 1928 seminal short story “The Call of Cthulhu,” and namesake for the author’s shared universe of ugly alien behemoths known as the Cthulhu Mythos, is the surprise villain of Underwater.
While Cthulhu was a late-stage addition by director William Eubank, who chose Cthulhu during post-production, the narrative and themes of Underwater fit eerily to Lovecraft’s style.
Despite the absence of the author’s tropes like ancient tomes and cults, Underwater lives up to the complicated and deeply problematic author’s interest in man’s confrontation with the unknown. Its premise in pitting a vulnerable human being (in this case, Stewart’s Norah) with the greatest of the Great Old Ones through her employment in an investigation-based occupation (mechanical engineering for a deep-sea drilling corporation) is structurally similar to “The Call of Cthulhu,” just heavily modernized and in almost a different genre.
Another staple of Lovecraft’s stories, an archaic understanding of mental illness often painted as “madness,” is also present in Underwater. Albeit with a different flavor. The film’s characters, chiefly Jessica Henwick’s Emily, succumbs to emotional hysteria and not necessarily from a psychological superpower that Cthulhu is capable of in his canon.
As a Cthulhu Mythos movie (made possible through the varying degrees Lovecraft’s stories exist in public domain), Underwater is impressive, if only because it wasn’t made to be one. At the beginning of Underwater’s creation, the monster was written only as “The Behemoth” and underwent several concept art drafts to be its own character, which Eubank revealed in interviews with Bloody Disgusting and Mr H Reviews on YouTube.
“It wasn’t written to be a Cthulhu movie,” Eubank told Bloody Disgusting. “[Writer] Brian Duffield wrote this terrific, scary film, but it wasn’t Cthulhu. It was just called a ‘Behemoth.’”
Eubank says Underwater was in post-production for close to two years (it was shot in 2017). “And during that time, when [we] actually started designing and creating what this Behemoth was gonna look like, I just knew at that point the movie was more mystical; in the way we shot it, in the way there were so many unanswered questions.”
It and The Flash director Andy Muschietti offered criticisms for Eubank, believing the Behemoth was not “scary enough.” This inspired Eubank to revise his monster. Eubank decided to lean into the existing Cthulhu inspiration for the movie’s smaller “Clinger” creatures, the parasitic bugs that pour out of Behemoth/Cthulhu and latch onto human hosts.
Eubank told Bloody Disgusting:
“We didn’t have much money to do big redesigns or anything like that, but fortunately since it was early in the process we were able to tweak the design that we were doing ... [W]e were able to shift the designs towards a darker, more Lovecraftian thing. When I started submitting designs for the Behemoth at the end, I was basically just telling the artists, ‘Alright, let’s make the Old One. Let’s get the boss of all bosses.’”
Oddly enough, the final boss for Underwater wasn’t Cthulhu — it was Mickey Mouse. As a 20th Century Fox film, Underwater lived through the $54 billion acquisition of Walt Disney. A number of Fox films were canceled by Disney, but Underwater — perhaps because work was already done — survived. Eubank recalls Disney was quite high on Underwater, saying he was told by marketing: “We think Lovecraft fans are going to love this movie.”
But there was one more question” Does Underwater advertise itself as a Lovecraft movie? Nothing in the marketing for Underwater called attention to itself as a Lovecraft film; taking a cue from M. Night Shyamalan’s 2017 horror film Split, which was secretly a sequel to his 2000 superhero drama Unbreakable, Eubank believes being upfront would have been a mistake.
“In order to make a proper Cthulhu movie, in my opinion, you can’t say it’s a Cthulhu movie,” said. “Because then the experience of the unknown and the cosmic horror really isn’t there. But by going in totally silent about it, and allowing people to be like ‘Wait, what is this. This isn’t making sense.’ And then for it to make sense in the end. That’s the best way to experience it.”
He added, “I feel like we really got away with something that doesn’t usually get to get made.”
I agree and disagree with Eubank. Had I known Underwater was a Cthulhu film, I would have gone out of my way to see the movie in 2020. As a Lovecraft fan (which, as a person of Filipino descent, I acknowledge the author’s vile racism and how that informed his imagination), I’ve long puzzled how Lovecraft’s stories haven’t yet had a definitive film adaptation. Guillermo del Toro has long wanted to make a film of Lovecraft’s “At the Mountains of Madness,” but beyond that, Lovecraft’s stories have stayed away from the silver screen.
But I also agree with Eubank to a point: The way his film plots the story and reveals Cthulhu is fitting to Lovecraft’s style. And despite that I did spoil myself, I still audibly yelled when Cthulhu stood before a puny Kristen Stewart. It’s a testament to the filmmakers that they still can accomplish a reaction even when I thought I knew what was up its sleeve.
While Underwater has flaws that keep it from occupying the same tier of horror movies shared by Ridley Scott’s Alien or John Carpenter’s The Thing, Underwater is an impressive homage to an extinct breed of horror even when it lacks a clear identity on its own. Even the presence of Cthulhu isn’t enough to wipe away notions of familiarity than originality. But Underwater is still a pleasant surprise, with potentially a lot to offer if you’re willing to go deep.
Underwater is streaming on HBO Max until June 30.