Movie Review: Submergence

Director Wim Wenders disappoints with watery romance

Submergence (Až na dno)
Directed by Wim Wenders
With Alicia Vikander, James McAvoy, Hakeemshady Mohamed, Alexander Siddig, Alex Hafner, Celyn Jones, Darian Martin, Charlotte Rampling

The key idea in Wim Wenders' new film Submergence is a bit of a pun that doesn't translate to the big screen. Two characters, who shared a holiday romance, both are submerged in different ways. 

Deep-sea biologist and mathematician Danielle Flinders (played by Alicia Vikander) physically goes down to explore the ocean's depths for the secrets of life, while a mysterious water engineer named James Moore (James McAvoy) is held captive by militants in Somalia and mentally dives down into the depths of his soul as he awaits an expected execution.

Even though the two characters share several scenes, Submergence plays like two completely separate films edited together somewhat randomly, like switching back and forth on a TV, not able to decide what to watch and in the end not really seeing anything.

The film is based on a novel by J. M. Ledgard, which had mixed reviews. (The same author wrote Giraffe, about the real communist-era slaughter of a herd of a giraffe at the Dvůr Králové Zoo in then-Czechoslovakia.)

Wim Wenders, now in his 70s, was a major figure in New German Cinema. His credits include Paris, Texas (1984) and Wings of Desire (1987), as well as the 1999 documentary Buena Vista Social Club.

Given what Wenders and his cast are capable of, Submergence is a disappointment. The ideas simply never comes together, and both plots seem to drag endlessly until they grind to a halt, never making the intended emotional connections. It becomes all too tempting to dismiss the film with more puns, calling it a damp squib, and adding that Wenders slipped up badly.

Wenders' films are usually multi-layered examinations of characters and landscapes, filled with subtle emotional nuance. Despite the intentions declared in the title, Submergence plays everything too close to the surface. The dialogues all sound stiff and stilted. The scientific discussions of life on the bottom of the ocean seem like mumbo-jumbo put in to fill space. Discussions of Moore's work in Africa also don't ring true.

One key drawback is that Flinders and Moore don't seem to have that much chemistry together. They have some vague interest in water in common and have a holiday affair at an expensive resort in Normandy. But for most of the film, they are apart, working on wildly different projects.

The affair seems more like they are both bored at the seaside, rather than actually in love. That they decide to continue it after the vacation is over seems like a surprise to both of them.

Alicia Vikander won an Oscar for her work in The Danish Girl (2016), and had good reviews for her starring role in Tomb Raider. Her character is smart and independent in Submergence, at first taking the upper hand in the holiday romance.

But the plot with her going to the bottom of the ocean sees the same character become fickle and uncertain. She is on the verge of throwing away her lifetime's work because she can't get a call through to a holiday fling who is in an African desert that shouldn't have phone service anyway.

The ocean scenes, especially the ones in a submarine, are clearly meant to have some edge of the seat suspense, but it feels too contrived.

James McAvoy, known for the X-Men films, M. Night Shyamalan's Split and The Last King of Scotland, is also stuck in a poorly developed role. Much of the time he is kept in solitary confinement, covered in heavy makeup to simulate injuries. He gets a few chances to interact with his captors but always has to be submissive so as not to offend them into action. There is little meat in the role to bite into.

Some of his captors have a bit of complexity, but they are minor figures.

Trying to blend the ocean and the desert, as well as romance, science and global politics is an ambitious project. But Submergence just doesn't get the recipe right.

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