In some ways, it’s ironic that Sigourney Weaver’s star-making performance as Lieutenant Ellen Ripley in Alien has become synonymous with “badass heroine.” After all, a big part of what makes Weaver so effective in the role is she’s doing the antithesis of action-star posturing. She makes Ripley unsure of her decisions, unsteady in the execution of her plans, and—perhaps most importantly—absolutely terrified of the unstoppable creature hunting down the crew of the Nostromo. During the climactic showdown aboard the escape ship, Ripley can’t even bring herself to look directly at the Xenomorph, even when it’s mere feet away. And that insecure, vulnerable humanity is precisely what makes her so real, and so relatable. Better still, when Ripley does eventually pull off her save-the-day heroics, it’s that much more meaningful, because it comes from a place of fragile courage; this is a mere person defeating the alien, not some indefatigable fantasy protagonist.
It’s been 40 years since Weaver’s performance became part of the lingua franca of American cinema, and the “Ripley” model has been an easy shorthand for Hollywood’s stock hero types for almost as long. (You will never convince me that Die Hard’s everyman John McClane would’ve existed in quite the same way without her.) But Kristen Stewart’s performance in Underwater reminds you of what makes it potent, in all the best ways. The actor begins the movie emotionally damaged and physically withdrawn, sitting on a bench and looking as though she wished she could collapse into herself. The film kicks into overdrive mere minutes in, and rarely lets up with the forward momentum, but through it all, Stewart towers over the material—a grounded, frightened, relatably real presence lending plausibility and empathy to the larger-than-life scenario of deep-sea researchers menaced by an unknown threat. She’s a 21st-century Ripley, updating the trope and commanding the screen with a presence that announces her enlistment into the ranks of compelling marquee stars who can anchor tentpole genre entertainment through sheer charisma.
It wasn’t always this way—far from it, in fact. Those who remember the days of the Twilight franchise dominating the pop-culture conversation during the last years of the aughts likely recall all too well how Stewart’s acting was caricatured as stilted and wooden. The movies were roundly panned—including on this very site, and deservedly so—but Stewart (as is so often the case with young female actors) got singled out for special criticism. As summed up by this YouTube video, people took the lifeless, turgid Twilight films she starred in and assumed they represented all she was capable of, no matter the positive notices she received in other, smaller films of the time.
Of course, there was always a subsection of critical acclaim for her—as I’ve argued before, Stewart’s early work seems to fall into the Natalie Portman school of acting, where she’s terrific in quality films, and awkward or out of place when dealing with subpar material or simply miscast. But Stewart is a quick learner, and has spent the past decade not only becoming a performer who can shine even when delivering lackluster dialogue in silly films, but steadily accruing the kind of respect most actors of any generation would kill for. (She remains the only American ever to win the César, the French equivalent of an Oscar.) Nowadays, it’s widely accepted that she’s a superlative actor who has found her niche in bold indie dramas and arthouse provocations. Yet the stink of Twilight still finds many of her admirers assuming the defensive posture in their praise.
Still, “action star” was never really a title that seemed to fit Stewart, even when she was attempting early experiments with Hollywood heroism in films like Snow White And The Huntsman. (Which, given how that one turned out, is understandable.) And in action comedies like American Ultra, Stewart played the exasperated straight man, leaving the derring-do to her costar Jesse Eisenberg. But this past year has seen the pendulum shift, starting with Charlie’s Angels. A movie that people seemingly wanted to like more than they actually did, the Elizabeth Banks-helmed reboot fizzled quick, though not before Stewart’s return to would-be blockbuster territory was singled out as its silver lining, the actor delivering a light and appealing performance built wholly on rakish, movie-star charisma. (Our own Katie Rife described Stewart as “practically skipping across the screen with a roguish sideways grin and a mischievous energy.”) In fact, Stewart’s work in Charlie’s Angels, so loose and high-spirited, is almost a rejoinder to the criticisms she caught early on.
With Underwater, Stewart goes beyond both the subtle, enigmatic minimalism that’s defined her dramatic work and the freewheeling energy of her Charlie’s Angels turn. It’s a role that could have amounted to playing thankless second banana to CGI scares, but much like Weaver before her, Stewart rises to the challenge, and finds humanist bravado in a largely reactive performance, mixing fear and ferociousness in equal measure. As with Weaver, Stewart emerges as a newly minted action star by bringing both grounded humanity and live-wire star wattage to proudly pulpy material.
The moments that solidify the excellence of her performance are often hard to qualify, given how much they depend on her simply taking in events happening all around her. (Daniel Kaluuya’s excellent and similarly reactive turn in Get Out is a helpful comparison in that regard.) There’s a scene early on, right before the situation explodes into chaos, which demonstrates what Stewart brings to the role. Set in an underwater drilling facility in the Mariana Trench, more than six miles below the surface, Stewart’s Norah is brushing her teeth when she hears some strange noises from the hallway. Stepping into a corridor, she pauses and listens, before holding up her hand just in time for a drop of water to fall from the ceiling and hit it. The complex emotions playing out on her face in the instant that follows somehow manage to convey “What?”, “Beautiful,” and “Oh shit, that can’t be good” all at the same time.
When the shit hits the fan, it’s Stewart’s interactions with her fellow crew that bring her talents to the forefront. While T.J. Miller delivers comic relief and Jessica Henwick’s intern Emily exudes pessimism and fear, Norah’s lines combine multiple emotions in rich ways. When Emily starts to freak out in her bulky diving suit on the ocean floor, Norah starts talking her down, reassuring her that not only will they make it out, but Emily is a damn hero for making it this far already. It’s a rousing bit of inspirational speechifying, but what makes it noteworthy is that Stewart’s Norah manages to sell Emily on her conviction while simultaneously sounding like she doesn’t believe a word of her own optimism.
And in one of Underwater’s best and tensest moments, Stewart delivers a panicky series of reaction shots in a scene that almost plays like the inverse of the aforementioned Ripley-Xenomorph showdown. Whereas that scene featured Ripley so close to the creature that she couldn’t bear to face it head on, a sequence where a diving-suited Norah is struggling to pull her captain (Vincent Cassel) to safety plays masterfully with how underwater life can zip in and out of our field of vision in a flash. Working to save her boss, Norah catches something in the corner of her eye, but when she turns to look, it’s gone. Rather than do the pragmatic thing and just pull Cassel’s character in as fast as possible, she stops everything; frozen in place, she scans the murky depths, longing to get a better look at what she saw. She’s petrified, unable to move, but you can also tell she wants, even needs, to see what’s menacing her from the inky blackness of the deep. That contradictory expression of desires—to counterintuitively face the deadly unknown, while simultaneously hoping against hope it never returns—is the kind of feeling it’s easy to articulate in words but fiendishly difficult to actually depict. Stewart makes it look like Norah’s natural state of being.
Underwater isn’t a great movie, or even a particularly good one. But it’s fun, well directed, and anchored by Stewart’s lead performance in a way that leaves you wanting to see more of her in this type of role—one that would require the indefinably magnetic quality that genuine movie stars bring to their films, while also retaining the slippery combination of quiet naturalism and oddly hypnotic anti-naturalism that has defined Stewart’s finest work. Best of all, Underwater is something new for Stewart that feels a long time coming, a role that suddenly reveals a side of her that leaves you wondering why you hadn’t seen it in her before. The best action performances convince you the star has always been that way—that it just took the camera some time to find them. The camera found Stewart long ago. Now, with luck, more of these roles will find her.