Review of "Underwater"

The Tian corporation is making another attempt at putting an ultra-deep-sea oil drilling rig at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, seven miles underwater. Previous efforts have failed for mysterious reasons. The base where the crew is housed is called Kepler and the drilling rig is called Roebuck. One morning when mechanical engineer Norah Price (Kristen Stewart) is brushing her teeth, Kepler suffers massive structural failures, causing flooding and implosions. Price and Rodrigo Nagenda (Mamoudou Athie) go looking for emergency escape pods, but their way is blocked by more damage. As they try to find an escape from the ocean floor, they find fellow crewman Paul Abel (T.J. Miller) buried under rubble but unhurt. The pair digs him out and continue their search for safety. They find Captain Lucien (Vincent Cassel) unhurt and unsuccessfully trying to contact the surface. The four then head to the control room where they find biologist Emily Haversham (Jessica Henwick) and engineer Liam Smith (John Gallagher, Jr.) also unsuccessfully trying to contact the surface. None of them knows why Kepler is coming apart at the seams, but the leading theory is earthquakes. Captain Lucien suggests a plan where they don high-tech pressurized suits and walk the mile to Roebuck where they might be able to contact someone or access more escape pods. There chances of success are slim and even lower since the cause of all their problems is a mysterious creature lurking in the depths that is unhappy about the intrusion of humanity in its home.

January usually is a dumping ground for movies, especially the first couple of weeks. You get Oscar contenders that had limited releases in December, but the majority of new movies are the cast offs, the unwanted, the redheaded bastards at the family reunion. In other words, January is often the landfill where garbage movies go to die. That brings us to “Underwater.” Shot back in 2017, “Underwater” was made by 20th Century Fox prior to its purchase by Disney. What struggles the film and film makers had due to the change of ownership and the reason for the release delay are unknown, but it shouldn’t have taken over two years for the film to arrive in theaters. Maybe it got lost in the transition or maybe Fox and Disney execs saw the movie and decided to bury it. Whatever the reason, “Underwater” is a good example of a January film.

It isn’t that “Underwater” looks cheap. The sets and pressurized suits look like they could exist. While the characters sometimes use the technology in ways that don’t make sense or seem impossible, nothing in the film looks like it’s such a leap that it would be 100 years before it would be available.

The movie has a claustrophobic design to many of the sets. There are some larger room and long hallways, but most of the film takes place in narrow access shafts, small elevators, collapsed structures and inside the suits. If you feel tense while being in a confined space, you might want to skip “Underwater.”

My issues with the film are based more on the actions of the characters, including the monster, and how much of it doesn’t make sense. There are some very stereotypical horror film behaviors on display. For instance, late in the film, Norah is awestruck as she sees the monster, missing an opportunity to run away. There are a couple of characters that sacrifice themselves in ways that are supposed to be brave and unselfish but feel more like a screenwriter trying to force the audience to feel something for generic tropes. The monster misses some opportunities to take out most of the cast when they become separated. It seems omnipresent for patches of the film then disappears if the script needs it to. Even the design of the drilling facility doesn’t make much sense. If you need to get from Kepler to Roebuck, how do you do that? It isn’t clear if a transport train we see the survivors riding is how teams get to Roebuck or another part of the facility. Do they take subs? Are they sent there directly from the surface? If so, what is Kepler for? This is another example of me thinking too much about meaningless details, but if you put that much information in a movie it should make sense. There are other examples of little details that confused me but those would be spoilers. Much of “Underwater” doesn’t seem to care of it makes sense.

“Underwater” is rated PG-13 for sci-fi action and terror, and brief strong language. There are a couple of bloody deaths, including one where a body implodes. We see a couple of dead bodies amongst the wreckage of the destroyed station. Foul language is scattered.

Perhaps the best thing about “Underwater” is the monster. We don’t get a good look at the creature until near the end of the film and even then, it is somewhat hidden by the murkiness of the water. It resembles bits and pieces of other movie monsters including ones from “Cloverfield” and “Star Wars: Return of the Jedi.” I wish as much effort had been put into the story and the characters as the monster, then maybe “Underwater” would have been worth the trip to the theater. Sadly, generic characters behaving in nonsensical ways in a predictable story with a decent monster is what we are given. If you are forced to see this film, be ready to hold your breath.

“Underwater” gets two stars out of five.

Two new movies open this week. I’ll see and review at least one of the following:

Bad Boys for Life—

Dolittle—

Listen to Comedy Tragedy Marriage, a podcast about life, love and entertainment, available wherever you get podcasts. Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to stanthemovieman123@gmail.com.

Review of “The Belko Experiment”

Located well outside the city limits of Bogota, Colombia, the office building of Belko Industries is surrounded by farmland, spike-topped fences and armed guard towers. On this day security, made up of Colombian soldiers, is heightened much to the chagrin of Barry Norris (Tony Goldwyn) who is in charge and wants to get inside. Also held up by security is Mike Milch (John Gallagher, Jr.) and new hire Dany Wilkins (Melonie Diaz) who is starting her first day. Things are pretty normal at the office except all the local workers were sent home at the gate. Front desk security guard Evan Smith (James Earl) tells Mike there was some kind of threat and that is the reason for the new guards and sending the locals home. The day progresses normally with Mike checking on Leandra Flores (Adria Arjona), his office girlfriend, who is getting unwanted attention from Wendell Dukes (John C. McGinley). As the day moves along a strange voice comes over the building intercom informing everyone that of the 80 people in the building, two must be killed by whatever means necessary in the next 30 minutes or other actions would be taken. The announcement causes some employees to panic while others consider it a joke. After the announcement ends metal plates slide up over all the windows and doors. After 30 minutes passes and no one is killed, the voice returns saying there are consequences for not following directions and several people’s heads explode from the inside. Everyone at Belko has a tracking chip implanted under the skin at the back of their heads. Everyone was told it was to track the employee in the event of a kidnapping and was a requirement of employment. The voice returns saying 30 people must be dead by the end of two hours or 60 more will die by exploding chips. Soon, the employees are beginning to split up into factions: Those who think 30 should be sacrificed and those still looking for a way for everyone to escape.

“The Belko Experiment” pretty much gives away the story from the title: Some shadowy group is doing a life-and-death experiment with the 80 people in the building. The biggest question is why? What purpose does this experiment serve? What answers are trying to be gleaned? How does this serve mankind in general? The answers we get at the end of a brisk 89 minute film are unsatisfying and turn the movie into a showcase for special makeup effects artists but little else.

There are some pretty good performances in “The Belko Experiment” from Tony Goldwyn, John C. McGinley and Adria Arjona. As the various factions begin to form it becomes clear there are some severely unhinged people on staff. McGinley’s Wendell Dukes is frightening in his willingness to kill and to follow Goldwyn’s Barry Norris without question as it comes time to choose who lives and dies. Arjona deftly plays both sides of the fence as she is willing to at least entertain the idea of picking victims. Her waffling seems to be a sign of her being involved in the experiment somehow but that never comes to fruition.

The ending of the film also is lacking. Without giving anything away, one character suddenly develops ninja-like abilities out of nowhere. He struggles to survive the majority of the film but at the end is capable of pulling off a maneuver that most sleight of hand magicians have to study years to perfect. It makes the movie even more meaningless than it already was.

I guess my biggest problem with “The Belko Experiment” is it’s just about watching these people kill each other. Had someone on the inside been a plant from whoever was running it that might have given some meaning to what was going on. As it is, “The Belko Experiment” is just a version of the TV show “Survivor” where instead of getting voted off the island, you get a bullet in the brain. While it certainly is a showcase for some gory kills it doesn’t really add up to anything more than that.

“The Belko Experiment” is rated R for strong bloody violence, language, some drug use and sexual references. From a wrench to the head to an explosive chip in the back of the head, there are numerous bloody kills in the movie. Perhaps the two most graphic are an axe used to split a person’s face and a tape dispenser smashing down numerous times on a person’s skull. The drug use is limited to two brief scenes showing characters smoking marijuana. The sexual references are also fleeting and either used for comic effect or to drive home how creepy one character is. Foul language is common but not overwhelming.

“The Belko Experiment” has an interesting premise but the execution (pardon the expression) is lacking. If the movie was about something bigger than the kills then it might have made more of an impact on me. As it stands, “The Belko Experiment” is a failed attempt at some kind of social commentary.

“The Belko Experiment” gets two stars out of five.

This week there are three new films, two based on existing properties and one that is original. I’ll see and review at least one of the following:

CHiPs—

Life—

Power Rangers—

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to stanthemovieman@comcast.net.

Review of “10 Cloverfield Lane”

Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is leaving her fiancé after an argument. While driving down a dark country road, Michelle has a traffic accident and wakes up sometime later in a concrete block room, hooked up to an IV and wearing a knee brace that is chained to a pipe on the wall. She soon meets Howard (John Goodman) who tells her he found her on the side of the road in her overturned car and brought her back to his home and saved her life. Howard tells Michelle they are in his underground bunker because some kind of attack has occurred and the air is toxic making it impossible for her to leave. Michelle doubts his story despite confirmation of an attack from Emmet (John Gallagher, Jr.). Howard’s assistant in building the bunker. Michelle smashes a bottle on Howard’s head, steals his keys and runs to the double steel doors to escape. As she is about to open the outer door, a neighbor woman begs to be let in. Her skin is covered in lesions and she begins smashing her head on the small window, demanding to be let in. Michelle begins to believe Howard is telling the truth and the trio settles into a routine of watching movies, working on jigsaw puzzles and listening to music on a jukebox. Soon, Howard’s controlling nature and a few clues found in his belongings lead both Michelle and Emmet to plot a dangerous escape plan.

“10 Cloverfield Lane” is not exactly a sequel to JJ Abrams 2008 monster movie “Cloverfield.” Abrams is a producer on the new movie but it was developed from a script that originally had nothing to do with that first film. Instead, “10 Cloverfield Lane” should be considered a companion piece to “Cloverfield” that doesn’t require you to have seen the original film to enjoy it and understand what’s happening. It is a showcase of both storytelling and acting with enough tension and suspense to keep your eyes glued to the screen and your hands gripping the armrests for nearly its entire running time.

The movie is shot mostly within the confines of the underground bunker, giving it a feeling of claustrophobia and ramping up the tension. While the characters can escape from one another they are never very far away from their roommates. It is the kind of setting where paranoia feeds on itself and the slightest disagreement can quickly spiral out of control. First time feature director Dan Trachtenberg displays a strong command of space and fills it with quiet moments that always feel like spring-loaded traps waiting to release their violence on the characters and the audience. Once the story moves underground there is a palpable sense of foreboding and the innate knowledge of approaching calamity. It is a film that reaches through the screen, grabs your collar and demands your attention.

John Goodman is spectacular in the demanding and complex role of Howard the benefactor/jailer of “10 Cloverfield Lane.” Howard’s bulk, as well as his possession of a gun and the keys to all the doors, presents an intimidating obstacle to freedom for Michelle and Emmet. Goodman’s Howard reminds the pair they would be dead without him and he feels they owe him gratitude and strict obedience for his hospitality. Goodman plays Howard as a man on a razor’s edge. He can switch from fatherly to threatening in a heartbeat if he senses some kind of treachery or betrayal. Goodman, best known for his sweet and funny portrayal of Dan Connor on the sitcom “Rosanne,” has shown himself to be a more than capable actor in feature films. “10 Cloverfield Lane” really lets him exercise his acting chops in a film that will likely find a wide audience.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead is the kind of strong and capable female character frequently demanded by those looking for better movie roles for women. Winstead’s Michelle is smart and capable, doesn’t need a man to save her and is more than willing to fight for herself against overwhelming odds. She questions Howard’s story of the attack and encourages him to do more than hide out underground. While Howard has more information about what’s going on than he is willing to share, Michelle pushes him to the point of his lashing out. It is his reactions and some other evidence that leads Michelle to attempt an escape. If there is a problem with her character it is her suddenly acquired ability to create something out of practically nothing. She becomes a female MacGyver as the movie goes on. While these abilities keep her alive they also stretch believability to the max. It’s a minor complaint but it did kind of stick out to me.

Rounding out the cast is John Gallagher, Jr. as Emmet. I think his character is there to keep the dynamic between Howard and Michelle from getting too creepy too quickly. Emmet is a buffer character that is simple and pure. He’s like a puppy that follows at its master’s heels and only wants to please. Emmet helped Howard build the bunker but describes getting through the door once the attack started as a fight. Despite this, Emmet is still loyal to Howard, believing everything he says. Emmet is a character that is surprisingly important to the story. If he was gone, the movie would have a completely different tone.

“10 Cloverfield Lane” is rated PG-13 for thematic material including frightening sequences of threat with some violence, and brief language. There is a car crash that is very violent. There is also a nearly constant threat of violence throughout the film. There is an image of a woman with what appear to be burns on her face. A character is shot and, while not seen, there is a spray of blood on the wall. A character is also severely burned.

There is only a passing mention of something possibly connected to “Cloverfield” but it is so minor it would be easy to miss it; however, the end of the movie does connect the two films and answers a few questions left dangling from the first film. If you haven’t seen the first film, that isn’t an impediment to enjoying this film as it stands alone and works as a psychological thriller without knowing anything about the giant monster that attacked New York. Still, there is something there for fans of the first film with the possibility of more tangentially connect stories to come. I am looking forward to more movies from this universe.

“10 Cloverfield Lane” gets five stars out of five.

The showdown between the two titans of the DC comics universe is just a week away; but this week, we get the third film adaptation from a YA book series as well as a faith-based drama. I’ll see and review at least one of these films.

The Divergent Series: Allegiant—

Miracles from Heaven—

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and contact me via email stanthemovieman@comcast.net.