By mid-2020, when this article was written, 4K HDR has become the baseline for displays. Certainly TVs, and to a large extent monitors. Most certainly for home cinema projectors.
Yet, some content kept releasing in 1080p full HD with SDR, or standard dynamic range, rather than 4K with high dynamic range. As the 2020 release of Underwater on Blu-ray demonstrated, 1080p SDR still had a lot of life left in it when done right. We will now switch to the present tense, because this Blu-ray will always be a prime example of doing more with less. Underwater is a science fiction horror movie set some ten kilometers below the Pacific Ocean surface. Directed by William Eubank, the movie stars Kirsten Stewart, Jessica Henwick, Vincent Cassel, Mamoudou Athie, and T. J Miller (of Cloverfield fame). Bojan Bazelli supervised cinematography, which is marvelous throughout.
Underwater on 1080p SDR Blu-ray makes a case for two things: first, a well-made disc compensates for lower settings. Second, with upscaling and HDR emulation getting better all the time, good home cinema displays and projectors provide consistent quality as long as the source is capable enough, which in the case of Underwater on Blu-ray is definitely the case.
With a surprisingly short running time of just over 90 minutes, Underwater manages to cover a lot of ground. Right off the bat, Stewart’s character Norah Price gets thrown (literally) into the fray along with her crewmates, as their underwater drilling operation begins crashing and imploding all around them. Yes, this aquatic theme would make Underwater an excellent choice for an outdoor movie marathon on the beach. In any case, from the start the Blu-ray overcomes its 1080p “limitations” by giving us an almost overload-like amount of detail. From the uniforms worn by characters to the endless attention to “lived-in” effects in the industrial facility, Underwater brings a wealth of background info via gorgeous set designs, VFX, and costuming. That pause button proves very handy with this movie.
And the big deal is that even though there’s no 4K and no HDR, everything still looks great. The mastering and authoring on this Blu-ray are so good that they easily outdo compressed 4K HDR as often done by streaming services.
Evoking classics like Alien and The Abyss, Underwater very quickly establishes itself and makes you feel like you’re down in the Marianna Trench along with the characters.
As the story progresses, the characters find themselves outside the station in huge deep dive suits and in the hostile waters at the bottom of the ocean. These sections stand in sharp contrast to the interior shots and feature a lot of meticulous art and visual effects. While mostly filmed “dry”, you won’t hesitate to believe for one split second that the protagonists aren’t actually submerged. Director Eubank is known as an avid gamer and has shared that Underwater was inspired by famous games such as Bioshock, Gears of War, and Soma. And that shows in the movie, which has clear shout-outs to all of those and more. The 1080p Blu-ray succeeds in showing every detail clearly, with dramatic light and shadow play as the murky waters conceal mysterious dangers. It’s all so beautiful.
Underwater has psychological horror elements, but let’s not be too shy about the spoilers: it’s essentially a monster movie, and has tons of creatures throwing themselves at our heroes. We won’t reveal more, other than to say that every creature design looks great, whether done using practical effects or CG art. Again, one has to applaud the superb attention to detail and legacy lineage vis a vis Alien and other creature classics. Underwater is right up there with them.
Despite the mix of practical and VFX, nothing looks out of place and the creatures interact with the cast seamlessly. By the time we get to the rather mind-blowing finale (which isn’t all that easy to spot in advance unless you realize this movie also pays tribute to Cloverfield), you’ll be totally convinced Underwater is some kind of next-gen visual effects wonder. And that’s despite being done on a small budget as the last movie to ever carry the 20th Century Fox name, and having been delayed multiple times. Not to mention releasing just as a global pandemic was getting under…way.
Masterfully crafted, respectful of viewer time, well-acted, and simply beautiful to look at, Underwater stands as somewhat of an unsung hero. The average reviews don’t do this gem justice, and if you’re into great-looking sci fi you simply have to watch this one pronto.